As it was for many Americans, Sept. 10, 2001 was initially just another day on the space station. Culbertson and two Russian cosmonauts were 29 days into their mission. They were gearing up to receive a new module, so they’d been going through their checklist, doing some experiments and communicating with mission control.
It was Culbertson’s third trip to the space station. Then, from 230 miles above the Earth’s surface, he prepared to begin another day: Tuesday, Sept. 11.
Astronaut Recalls Watching the Second Tower Fall
Culbertson recently recounted his experiences to Rich Cooper, vice president of communications for the Space Foundation and the co-host of its Space4U podcast. He said that as Sept. 11 dawned, he was preparing to do some routine maintenance and then do medical physicals of the crew (he was essentially “the flight surgeon,” Culbertson said, as his dad was a doctor).
After he performed the physicals, Culbertson had to call down to Earth and talk to Dr. Steve Hart, a good friend, about what he’d found.
“And I called the ground and they finally connected me to him and I said, ‘Hey Steve, how’s it going?’ And you know, [I was] ready to give him the information and catch up,” Culbertson recalled, per the Daily Mail.
But Hart was slow to answer. Finally, he said, “Well Frank, we’re not having a very good day here on Earth.”
At that point, the second tower had not yet come down. And as they spoke, news broke that a fourth plane had crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania – Flight 93, on which the passengers had staged a daring counterattack.
Culbertson called in his Russian colleagues because he felt they needed to know what was going on. (According to Culbertson, 94 Russians died in the World Trade Center that morning.) And the three of them then noticed that they were orbiting above Canada and would soon be passing New York.
So Culbertson hurried into one of the space station’s bedrooms, from which he could, “clearly see the smoke rising out of New York, out over Long Island, over the Atlantic,” he said. He tried to zoom in with his camera, and as he did, “a big gray blob” overtook southern Manhattan. He realized later he was watching the second tower fall in real-time from outer space.
9/11 Attacks Hit Close to Home for Culbertson
By the time they passed over New York again, 90 minutes later, the astronaut and his cosmonaut colleagues were ready with cameras. This time they noticed smoke over the Pentagon.
What Culbertson didn’t know then, but would later learn, was that his friend, Capt. Charles “Chic” Burlingame, had been killed by the al Qaeda terrorists. Burlingame was the pilot of Flight 77, which had crashed into the Pentagon.
“We played the drums and bugle corps together,” Culbertson wrote after learning this news. “We were both trying to fly the F4 Phantom at the same time, and we’d known each other since 1967. And so it became very personal.”
The astronaut and the two cosmonauts returned to earth on Dec. 15. And when Culbertson got back, he returned to a very different country, a wartime America, with dramatically enhanced security at airports.
“For us, it was a big change,” he said.