Your City Still Looks Very Beautiful From Space

 "No day shall erase you from the memory of time"


The purpose of Astronomical Returns has always been to make space more relatable to everyday people, so as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I thought it'd be fitting to share my own recollection of that dark day in American history, as well as that of the lone American astronaut not on Earth during 9/11, Frank Culbertson. I still find it hard to believe that two decades have passed. At this point there are basically two groups of people: those who experienced 9/11 and remember it vividly, and those who were born afterwards and only learned about it in history books. But there's a slim sliver of the population, people like me around 25 years old, who at the time were just barely old enough to recognize that something terrible was unfolding, but were simply too young to fully comprehend. All I have are fuzzy memories of my kindergarten teacher suddenly leaving the classroom one morning, then coming back with a small box-shaped TV and turning on the news to see smoke and flames

So for me and my contemporaries, I feel like over the course of our entire childhoods we had to retroactively piece together the significance of what we experienced that day as toddlers, the older we got and the more we learned about it. The number of lives lost, the history of American military power and Middle Eastern conflicts, the motivations of those who would commit such atrocities. Of course by the time I graduated college I'd long since gotten up to speed, but when I moved to New York to start work, I felt a deeper sense of the tragedy after visiting the 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero and seeing all the exhibits. By far the most moving one for me was the video taken by Frank Culbertson from the ISS, with the smoke from the Twin Towers clearly visible over Manhattan, and the words of comfort he offered to all Americans suffering on the ground below

As seen from orbit: smoke rising from the burning World Trade Center, the morning of September 11, 2001

Culbertson was on the ISS as part of Expedition 3, just the third long-term crew to inhabit the newly constructed space station (for reference, the current ISS crew is Expedition 65). This was Culberton's third spaceflight, having previously flown on STS-38 and STS-51, but unlike those short missions, he would be spending 4 months in space with his Russian crewmates, Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin. One month into that mission, on the morning of September 11th, he was chatting with the flight surgeon in Mission Control, Steve Hart, who broke the news of the attacks to him with the now-famous statement, "Frank, we're not having a very good day down here on Earth"

Culbertson realized they happened to be passing over the southeastern part of Canada and would be coming up on the eastern seaboard soon, so he and his crewmates grabbed their video cameras and headed to the window that would give them the best view of lower Manhattan. As they passed overhead, Culbertson offered these words as he witnessed the destruction from 250 miles above the Earth:

"I hope that the people who are responsible are caught and brought to justice as soon as possible. But first, our prayers and condolences to all involved. And I just wanted the folks to know that their city still looks very beautiful from space"

Frank Culbertson (center), Mikhail Tyurin (left), and Vladimir Dezhurov (right) on Expedition 3

9/11 would bring personal tragedy to Culbertson as well. After passing over New York, their orbital trajectory took them over Washington DC, where he described a sort of haze over the city that he couldn't identify the source of. Only later did he learn that the Pentagon had been struck, and that the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77 had been Charles Burlingame, his close friend and fellow classmate from the US Naval Academy. To honor his fallen friend and all the others killed in the terrorist attacks, Culbertson played "taps" from the trumpet he had brought on board the space station

A fitting tribute from orbit. The full video from NASA showing 9/11 from ISS can be found here

To close, I'd like to share an excerpt from the emails Culbertson wrote in the days after 9/11, sharing his reflections on the tragedy he had witnessed, and how isolated he felt being the only American off-world while his country suffered below. It's publicly available on the NASA website, so I encourage you to read it in its entirety. It's really beautifully written

It's difficult to describe how it feels to be the only American complete off the planet at a time such as this. The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming. I know we are on the threshold (or beyond) of a terrible shift in the history of the world. Many things will never be the same again after September 11, 2001. Not just for the thousands and thousands of people directly affected by these horrendous acts of terrorism, but probably for all of us. We will find ourselves feeling differently about dozens of things, including probably space exploration, unfortunately.

It's horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are. And the knowledge that everything will be different than when we launched by the time we land is a little disconcerting. I have confidence in our country and in our leadership that we will do everything possible to better defend her and our families, and to bring justice for what has been done. I have confidence that the good people at NASA will do everything necessary to continue our mission safely and return us safely at the right time. And I miss all of you very much. I can't be there with you in person, and we have a long way to go to complete our mission, but be certain that my heart is with you, and know you are in my prayers

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