Astronaut Frank Culbertson watched from the Space Station as the attacks unfolded on the ground.
When astronauts describe the feeling of sailing around space, looking at our planet from hundreds of miles above, they often invoke the phrase "orbital perspective," a shorthand for the emotional, psychological, and intellectual effects of seeing "the Earth hanging in the blackness of space." This experience is characterized by not merely awe, but, as astronaut Ron Garan puts it, "a sobering contradiction. On the one hand, I saw this incredibly beautiful, fragile oasis -- the Earth. On the other, I was faced with the unfortunate realities of life on our planet for many of its inhabitants."
This tension was particularly poignant on 9/11, when the effects of violence on Earth were actually visible from space, as captured in the photograph above. At the time, three people were not on Earth: Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Tyurin and Vladimir Dezhurov, and American Frank Culbertson, making Culbertson the only American not on Earth during the 9/11 attacks.
Over the course of that night and into the following few days, Culbertson wrote a letter to those at home, and his words echo that orbital perspective Garan describes. "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."