On September 11th, 2001, Astronaut Frank Culbertson was the only American not on the planet Earth. He was aboard the International Space Station, the only American on the crew.
He happened to be flying over the New York City area when the World Trade Center attack went down, and he decided to document the events from above. The result is some amazing photo and video documentation of what it all looked like from miles away.
NASA has put some of those photos on their site as part of a NASA Remembers September 11th tribute. The photo you see in the lead image was taken by Culbertson on the morning of 9/11. What you see is the smoke and debris rising up from ground zero, a truly heartbreaking and amazing sight.
Culbertson also documented his thoughts about witnessing 9/11 from space in a public letter, which NASA has posted in its entirety on their site. Here's an excerpt from what he wrote on September 11th, 2001 -
The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city. After reading one of the news articles we just received, I believe we were looking at NY around the time of, or shortly after, the collapse of the second tower. How horrible…
And this is from the very next day -
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.
Culbertson talks about the experience in this NASA video. In it, you also get glimpses of the video that he recorded from the ISS on 9/11.
NASA captured other photos from high above NYC. This photo was taken the day after, by the Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) aboard the Landsat satellite -
"Other than the emotional impact of our country being attacked and thousands of our citizens and maybe some friends being killed, the most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation," said astronaut Culbertson on 9/11.
I can't even imagine what that felt like, seeing it all unfold from space.