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What 9/11 Looked Like To The Only American Service Member Not On Earth
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in 2017 and is being republished for the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
The question of “where were you on Sept. 11?,” the traditional addendum to the distinctly post-9/11 rallying cry of “never forget,” means something different to the service members and veterans who saw combat in the Global War on Terror than it does for the average civilians. Thousands of military personnel sprang into action on that Tuesday, from racing toward the World Trade Center and Pentagon alongside first responders to securing U.S. air sovereignty from the cockpit of an F-15. In the decade that followed, more than 3 million Americans joined the armed forces. The attacks were an unmistakable call of duty, one that Americans are still answering 16 years later.
But there was one U.S. service member who felt helpless in the face of the century’s most heinous terrorist attack. He was Navy aviator Capt. Frank Lee Culbertson, and on 9/11, he was stranded in outer space.
The moment that al Qaeda hijackers flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower, Culbertson was 220 miles above the Earth’s surface aboard the International Space Station, one month into his stay as commander of the Expedition 3 mission there. A former F-4 Phantom pilot with the USS Midway in the 1970s, F-4 program manager, and veteran of three spaceflights after joining NASA in 1984, Culbertson’s seen some shit from his high-tech nest screaming across the sky. But in a letter reflecting on the events of Sept. 11 just days after the attacks, Culbertson described the surreal scene unfolding on the island of Manhattan below:
I had just finished a number of tasks this morning, the most time-consuming being the physical exams of all crew members. In a private conversation following that, the flight surgeon told me they were having a very bad day on the ground. I had no idea...
He described the situation to me as best he knew it at ~0900 CDT. I was flabbergasted, then horrified. My first thought was that this wasn't a real conversation, that I was still listening to one of my Tom Clancy tapes. It just didn't seem possible on this scale in our country. I couldn't even imagine the particulars, even before the news of further destruction began coming in.
Astronaut Frank L. Culbertson, Jr. (center), Expedition Three mission commander, flanked by cosmonauts Mikhail Tyurin and Vladimir N. Dezhurov, both flight engineers, assemble for a group photo in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station (ISS)Photo via NASA
The other members of Expedition 3, Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin, were “clearly sympathetic” when Culbertson relayed the flight surgeon’s assessment of the news on the ground. But the true scope of the attack didn’t sink in until the ISS passed over New England just minutes later:
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.
Photo via Landsat 7/NASA Goddard Office of Public Affairs
Despite having a front-row seat to the horror unfolding miles below, Culbertson expressed his faith that even if he couldn’t answer the call of duty at that moment, his fellow service members absolutely would.
“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 concluded. “I have confidence that the good people at NASA will do everything necessary to continue our mission safely and return us safely at the right time. And I miss all of you very much.”
There's something very, very wrong with a recent tweet from the official Twitter account of the Defense Department. Can you spot it?
Let's zoom in, just in case.
The main takeaways from this whole incident:
1. That's clearly a Stryker, not a Paladin.
2. The use of #KnowYourMil in this tweet is the funniest self-inflicted wound of 2019.
3. We have no idea how the crew of this Stryker, clearly named 'Tazerface,' might feel about this flub, but we can venture a guess according to the vehicle's Guardians of the Galaxy namesake:
I love this job.
2 years after the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions, the Navy has no idea if its new ship-driving training is working
Two years after a pair of deadly collisions involving Navy ships killed 17 sailors and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, the Navy still can't figure out whether its plan to improve ship-driving training has been effective.
In fact, according to senior Navy officials quoted in a recent Government Accountability Office report on Navy ship-driving, it could take nearly 16 years or more to know if the planned changes will actually have an impact.
The command chief of the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, was removed from his position last month after his chain of command received evidence he disrespected his subordinates.
An Air Force private housing company faked its maintenance records to get millions of dollars in bonuses
SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - A U.K. company that provides housing to U.S. military families came under official investigation earlier this year, after Reuters disclosed it had faked maintenance records to pocket performance bonuses at an Oklahoma Air Force base.
At the time, Balfour Beatty Communities said it strove to correctly report its maintenance work. It blamed any problems on a sole former employee at the Oklahoma base.
Now, Reuters has found that Balfour Beatty employees systematically doctored records in a similar scheme at a Texas base.