This Was The Only American Not On Earth On September 11, 2001

Tuesday marked the 17th anniversary of September 11th, one of the darkest days in American history when terrorists hijacked 4 airplanes and flew them into the Pentagon, the World Trade Centers, and the final plane had the intended target of the White House but the passengers fought back and crashed the plane into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

In total, 2,996 people died that day, with more victims dying daily from all the side effects from that day (inhaling all the asbestos, jet fuel, and things of that nature). It was a trying day for just about every American but was particularly difficult for 1 American who wasn’t even on this planet on that fateful day.

Smoke billowing from the Twin Towers as seen from space on 9/11/2001. Image source: Flickr

NASA astronaut, and commander of the International Space Station, Frank Culbertson was the only American onboard the ISS at the time of the attacks. Luckily his crewmates and the people on the ground were extremely sympathetic towards him and understood how difficult it was for him to not be home while this was happening. Culbertson actually wrote a letter about 9/11 and reflected on the events, and we wanted to include some excerpts from that letter to show Culbertson’s difficulties with being on the ISS while the terror attacks were going on. You can read the entirety of the letter on NASA’s website here, and I personally highly recommend reading it since it is a piece of American history for both science and 9/11 history as well.

  • “The most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation.”
  • “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.”
The smoke from the Twin Towers as seen from space. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

One other quote we wanted to include was this one (we felt that it deserved its own section):

 I know so many people in Washington, so many people who travel to DC and NYC, so many who are pilots, that I felt sure I would receive at least a few pieces of bad news over the next few days. I got the first one today when I learned that the Captain of the American Airlines jet that hit the Pentagon was Chic Burlingame, a classmate of mine. I met Chic during plebe summer when we were in the D&B together, and we had lots of classes together. I can’t imagine what he must of gone through, 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..

While those of us alive watched the events of September 11 unfold on the television, commander Culbertson had such a unique view seeing it from the ISS (although I can’t say I envy him for it). While I feel awful for him that he felt isolated, like he said in his letter, I do believe that his crewmates and the people on the ground tried to be there for him as much as possible while dealing with their own grief and emotions.

NASA and JPL also have a tribute to September 11 on Mars. The Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit’s hardware is actually made out of aluminum that was recovered from the World Trade Center towers destruction site as an interplanetary remembrance to those we lost that day. It not only reminds us about 9/11 but now it will forever be a part of Martian history as well.

Image source: Air Force Mil

The Mars rover Spirit was active from 2004 until 2010 when NASA and JPL officially lost contact with the rover after it got stuck in Martian soil. Opportunity also landed on Mars in 2004 and has been active until recently when a planet-wide dust storm hit Mars and Opportunity lost contact with JPL. Attempts are still being made to reestablish contact with Opportunity, however, it is unclear if it will be successful or not. The dust storm has receded recently so Opportunity has had some time to recharge its solar panels again, so now it is a matter of playing the waiting game.

September 11 Attacks

For those of you out there who may not know much about the attacks on America on 9/11, we wanted to quickly go over what happened, who was responsible for them, and the lasting effects of the attacks.

The 9/11 attacks were a series of 4 orchestrated terrorist attacks coordinated by the terror group al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden. On the morning of September 11, 2001, 4 airplanes operated by two major airlines (American Airlines and United Airlines) were hijacked by 19 different terrorists. American Airlines flight 11 was hijacked and flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, United Airlines flight 175 was flown into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Within a 2-hour time frame of the towers being hit, they both collapsed. Another hijacked plane, American Airlines flight 77, was flown into the Pentagon, which is the headquarters for the US Department of Defense. The final hijacked airplane, United Airlines flight 93, had the intended target of flying into the White House. The passengers onboard were able to make contact with their loved ones via the onboard telephones and had learned about the previous attacks and they chose to fight back against the terrorists. United 93 was deliberately crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, about 170 miles away from Washington DC.

In total, 2,996 people lost their lives (including the 19 hijackers), and over 6,000 people were injured in the attacks. It was the deadliest and worst terrorist attack on American soil and people still die from the health effects associated with 9/11. In May 2011, SEAL Team Six located and killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, finally getting revenge for 9/11. The attacks of September 11th changed the lives of Americans all across the world, and its impacts are still felt even after 17 years.

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