The Most Isolated Human Alive During 9/11

By Heather Ramsey on Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Frank_Culbertson_Jr
“Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide, wide sea.” —Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

In A Nutshell

During the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson was the only American who wasn’t on Earth. “The most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation,” Culbertson wrote from the International Space Station (ISS). “The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming.” He was also saddened to learn of the death of his friend, Charles Burlingame, the pilot of the plane that hit the Pentagon. Despite his loss, Culbertson successfully completed his mission, returning to Earth on December 17, 2001.

The Whole Bushel

During the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson was the only American who wasn’t on Earth. Over the next few days, he wrote about the tragedy, giving us his perspective from the International Space Station (ISS). “The most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation,” wrote Culbertson. “The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming.”

With Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin beside him, Culbertson heard about the attacks from the NASA flight surgeon on Earth. Horrified, the astronaut hurried to a window overlooking New York City, then shot video of smoke streaming from the area of the World Trade Center. Later, he realized that he had seen New York about the time that the second tower had collapsed.

He was also saddened to learn of the death of his friend, Charles “Chic” Burlingame, the pilot of the airplane that hit the Pentagon. They had been classmates at the US Naval Academy. “I can’t imagine what he must [have] gone through,” wrote Culbertson, “and now I hear that he may have risen further than we can even think of by possibly preventing his plane from being the one to attack the White House. What a terrible loss, but I’m sure Chic was fighting bravely to the end. And tears don’t flow the same in space.”

The contrast between the camaraderie on the ISS and the violent events on Earth was difficult for Culbertson to fathom. “It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point,” he wrote. “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 . . . And the knowledge that everything will be different than when we launched by the time we land is a little disconcerting.”

Dezhurov and Tyurin were exceedingly kind to Culbertson, both expressing their sympathy and outrage over the events that had just transpired. For dinner, Tyurin made Culbertson’s favorite Borscht soup. More importantly, both cosmonauts gave him some time to be alone with his thoughts. The people manning the Russian Mission Control Center were also kind to Culbertson, even transmitting relevant news articles and radio broadcasts when NASA couldn’t. Tyurin received emails from his Russian friends expressing their condolences to Culbertson, too. “I hope the example of cooperation and trust that this spacecraft and all the people in the program demonstrate daily will someday inspire the rest of the world to work the same way,” he wrote.

Despite his emotions over the tragedy, Culbertson successfully completed his mission, returning to Earth on December 17, 2001. That same month, the space shuttle Endeavour flew its mission with 6,000 US flags aboard to honor the 9/11 victims and their families. Flags from the crash sites in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania were also on board.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: NASA
The Atlantic: The Story of the Only American Not on Earth on September 11th
NASA: Astronaut Frank Culbertson Letter from September 11, 2001
SPACE: Remembering 9/11: An Astronaut’s Painful View From Space