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'Tears Don’t Flow the Same in Space.' NASA Astronaut Learned of 9/11 Attacks Aboard the International Space Station

Renae Reints
Fortune

Tuesday marks the 17th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks on the United States claimed the lives of thousands. On that morning, NASA operations captured photos of smoke rising from New York City, where the World Trade Center fell.

A second image from the following day shows the remains of a hazy plume above Manhattan.

NASA Astronaut Frank Culbertson, Commander of the International Space Station during this time, wrote about his experience hearing about the attacks so far from home.

“It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point,” Culbertson wrote on Sept. 13, 2001. “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.”

A photo of New York City taken by one of the Expedition Three crew members on the International Space Station (ISS) September 11, 2001.

Being the only American aboard the ISS at this time, Culbertson was particularly touched by the events of 9/11, although he recounts the outpouring of support he received from both his crew mates and those back on Earth.

“It’s difficult to describe how it feels to be the only American completely off the planet at a time such as this,” wrote Culbertson. “The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming. I know that we are on the threshold (or beyond) of a terrible shift in the history of the world.”

The bad news didn’t end after the attacks. Culbertson soon found out that the plane downed in Virginia was captained by his classmate, Chic Burlingame. “Tears don’t flow the same in space,” Culbertson wrote.

On Tuesday, the 17th anniversary of the tragic attacks, NASA tweeted a photo of New York City today, as seen from the ISS. “#NeverForget those lost on #September11th,” NASA wrote.

In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Culbertson expressed a desire that his work would someday lead to a more peaceful world.

“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. “They must!”

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