Transcript: Space4U podcast, Frank Culbertson

Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team

Hello, this is Rich Cooper with Space Foundation, with a special edition of the Space4U podcast. This podcast commemorates the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks upon the United States. Anyone who was alive that day has a story of where they were and how it unfolded. All of those stories are as unique as the individuals who tell them — they contain heartbreak and horror, as well as bear witness to the heroism of a day that changed everything for so many.


But of all of those unique stories, is one told by an American who was not on the planet that day. Joined by two Russian cosmonauts on board the International Space Station, as part of the Expedition 3 crew, Frank Culbertson was serving as commander of that mission. A veteran astronaut and a leader who helped shape the training of American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts as part of the shuttle Mir program, and later the ISS expedition cruise that he would subsequently become part of


Frank Culbertson’s experiences as a Naval officer test, pilot and engineer were given many tests, but nothing could have prepared him or his crew mates for the changes and challenges that happened on planet Earth that day. Even being 254 miles above the Earth and traveling at more than 17,000 miles per hour does not make you immune to the happenings of your home planet.


Space Foundation is humbled and proud to share Frank’s unique story with you, our listening audience, and even prouder of our relationship with Frank as a member of our Board of Directors. Recorded during a break of the programming of the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Here’s our conversation with Navy Captain Frank Culbertson.


Tell me about September 10th, 2001 on the space station. Just a regular day. Yeah. The 10th was just a regular day. We were preparing to receive a new module. And so we’d been going through the checklist for that and, uh, making sure that everything was ready on the station for that, um, went through our normal routines, uh, you know, worked out some experiments and, and did some communications with the ground.


And then on the 11th, um, my first task of the day was to, after normal stuff, you know, uh, maintenance and things was to do, um, conduct physicals, medical physicals on all the crew. Um, so you were the flight surgeon as well. I was basically the flight surgeon, yeah, the, uh, commander and the flight surgeon, but my dad was a physician so I think that justified it.


But, uh, we’ve been on orbit 30 days and that’s when we typically do the physicals every 30 days. And, um, so at the end of that, uh, Vladimir had done mine and recorded all the data. And I, and I did the physicals on Michael and Vladimir and, um, had all the data recorded.


And so the plan was to call the ground on the secure circuit and encrypted circuit, so that, because it was private medical information and talk to the flight surgeon. Uh, Dr. Steve Hart. And so I called the ground and, and, um, uh, they finally connected me to him and I said, Hey, Steve, how’s it going? And, uh, you know, ready to give him the information and just catch up.


And this is September 11th. Yeah. Yeah. Cause he’s a good friend and, uh, Steve said, well, Frank, we’re not having a very good day down here on Earth. And my first thought was there must’ve been an accident or some family member has a problem, or who knows what, but I’m sure he’s gonna tell me, but I was a little leery of what it might be.


And he began to describe to me what had happened in New York City and at the Pentagon. And as we were talking and he said, uh, we’re watching the news and another plane just crashed, this time in Pennsylvania. We don’t know any details about it. So what I was thinking, uh, initially was, there must be this wild spate of accidents or something.


And then I realized we were under attack. The other odd thing was I was halfway through Tom Clancy’s A Sum of All Fears on an audio book. Fabulous book. Yeah, really good. But it has quite the ending. Yeah. But I, I thought, am I in a book? Is this a movie? I mean, is this real? And, um, just kind of fleeting thoughts and, um, as he’s describing it and, you know, asked a few questions, I call my crew mates in to where we were talking in the laboratory.


Um, and, uh, cause they needed to hear what was going on. And of course they were very concerned and very serious. Russia had been attacked by terrorists several times in the preceding couple of years. And, uh, you know, we had no idea how widespread this attack was going to be, how many countries might be involved.


Uh, so we took it very seriously and as we are talking to the ground and trying to get some updates because we had no live TV. In fact, we had no live internet. We had sporadic email basically, um, and verbal. And so they’re telling us what’s going on. And I looked at the world map on the laptop that we had right by the comm station.


And I saw that we were coming over Canada, uh, and realized we were going to be over New England shortly. And so. Uh, told the ground to standby, and I raced around and found a video camera and a window facing in the right direction. And as we crossed over Maine, about 400 miles from New York City, I could look down out that window.


Uh, it actually was Michael’s bedroom window that I was looking out of. And, uh, and clearly see the smoke rising out of New York, out over Long Island, over the Atlantic. So it made it easy to zoom in with the camera and look at what was happening. And as I zoomed in, a big gray blob, enveloped, Southern Manhattan, and it turned out, I found out later, what I was seeing was the second tower come down.


Um, to me it was just explosions. And, and again, you’re 230 miles above the Earth. Yup. And, uh, and traveling at five miles a second. So it’s going away pretty quickly and I stayed focused on it as long as I could. Um, uh, assuming that tens of thousands of people must be dying. No, you know, it was New York City and looking at what seemed to be the magnitude of the event.


Um, I made some comments and said some words about bringing these people to justice and how much it hurt me to see my country under attack. So you’re up there with your Russian crewmates. You mentioned that your Russian crewmates, Russia had experienced terrorist attacks earlier. How did they react? Because this was a very, sort of personal attack on America in that regard.


Well, obviously they have a lot of friends in America and we’re flying on a joint spacecraft and, um, uh, they took it very seriously also. And as New York faded over the horizon, five miles a second, I said, okay, 90 minutes from now, we need to be ready.


Well, I want every camera we’ve got, uh, in a window somewhere so that we can take pictures as we go over, uh, the United States, again, not knowing for sure what it looked like and what we might see. Um, you know, the ground couldn’t talk to us very much because they were pretty preoccupied with what was going on. They told us a little bit more news, um, but did it, but it never interrupted station operations?


Well, it did for a couple of hours that morning. And, uh, um, I mean, it didn’t affect our station operations, but we changed our schedule. Right. We focused on this. And, um, uh, so 90 minutes later as we crossed the Midwest, we came by over Chicago. We crossed, um, Indiana. I had a daughter at Purdue University at the time.


Uh, the weather was perfectly clear all over the Eastern United States. It was a perfectly clear September day. Yes. It was gorgeous on the East Coast. It certainly was. Yeah. And, uh, and I could see all the way from Chicago to Houston where a large part of my family was. And as we came down towards the Eastern seaboard, uh, we, I couldn’t see anything in Pennsylvania.


I looked no smoke or anything, it happened so fast. In such a contained way. Um, but as we crossed Washington, and I could see all up and down the east coast. And I have had family all of it down the east coast also. I could clearly see the smoke coming out of the Pentagon. I used my binoculars to focus in and the gash in the side of the building, even flashes of emergency vehicles, lights, as we crossed over.


That was at night? Or was that during the day that you were able to see some of those flashes? During the day, yeah, it was more dramatic at night of course, uh, as the emergency vehicles were around, but this was mid-morning and, um, or late morning, I guess by then. And, um, uh, and we clicked quickly, quickly crossed over the Pentagon and over the Eastern shore.


And I could look back up and still see New York clearly. And so I took some more video of the smoke coming out over the Atlantic from, from New York City. And, um, uh, and as we’re going out over the Atlantic, I’m thinking, you know, as many people as I know that fly airplanes and travel and go to New York City and work in the Pentagon, I’m probably going to know somebody who was affected by this.


And of course it was breaking my heart to see my country under attack like this and not know what else I could do besides take pictures, record it and send hopeful messages down to the folks on Earth. So as we came around the third time. Um, I of course always look at the US as we went over.


And by that time, almost all of the contrails that are normally a spiderweb over the United States had disappeared because they had grounded all the airplanes. Except for one airplane that I saw streaking across the country. Um, which for a long time, I thought was Air Force One, trying to get the president back.


Uh, it turned out he was on a different route and a different time. And I found out about two years ago just by happenstance because I met the guy who was flying the airplane at a conference. It was an airborne command post that was being diverted from the west to the east coast because they had just launched on a 30-hour training mission with two full crews to change out over time.


And they were being sent to control the fighters on the east coast, from the air. And, uh, and they did stay airborne for over 30 hours, uh, taking care of that business. Uh, and it was quite an honor to meet him also. Um, but you know, that made it real that they grounded everything and that had just never happened in the US before.


Um, we were still, we were getting bits and pieces of what was going on, but not, not a lot of detail. You mentioned the bits and pieces. Did you ever felt like, did you ever feel you were being kept in the dark? Not at all. Nope. I did get message from the ground. Uh, contacted my family and, uh, they had all contacted each other and that everybody was fine in the various places where, that they lived, which was, you know, a source of relief to me and NASA actually set up a telecon with my wife at the time, uh, that evening, um, so that I could talk to her directly and make sure that I could hear from her, that everybody was okay.


The center director had actually called me on the air-to-ground before that to assure that they were looking out for my family and for my crewmates’ families to make sure everybody was all right and would keep us, uh, enlightened if anything happened. History will record that you’re the only American, not on the planet during 9/11, it’s probably one of the most unique distinctions. How does that make you feel?


Well, it is unique and, um, you know, I I’d hope to be famous for other things going up, but, but, uh, uh, and I hope some of my other accomplishments, uh, uh, justify the fact that I was actually in space at that time and, and commanding the station.


Um, so yeah, it is a unique position. It doesn’t make me any better or worse than any of the other people that were experiencing this. It’s just unique, as you said. Um, I wasn’t under attack. I wasn’t going to get deployed. Um, uh, I didn’t lose any direct family members.


Uh, however, the next morning I did get a call from TJ Creamer at my, uh, support astronaut on the encrypted loop again, to give me updates on what was happening, and he said, well, Frank, I’ve got some bad news. Um, your classmate Chic Berlingame from the Naval Academy was the Captain of American Airlines Flight 77 that was crashed into the Pentagon, of course, that hit me really hard because Chic and I were aerospace majors together at the academy.


We played the drum and bugle Corps together. We both were trying to fly the F-4 Phantom at the same time. And, um, we’d known each other since 1967. And, um, so it became very personal, but I felt pretty well-informed while we were up there. It was just, uh, I wasn’t in harm’s way, despite the fact that, um, one of my other support astronauts, uh, Don Pettit, who’s a real whiz, um, and likes to do things because he likes to calculate and learn and stuff.


Doesn’t always think about, you know, why he’s doing it. Um, he sent me an email and said, Hey Frank, I just want you to know I’ve done the calculations and they actually could hit you with a Scud missile if they got lucky, because they can get to that altitude. It’s not guided, but you know, they might get lucky.


And I said, thanks for Don. Thanks a lot for that. I was going to say uplifting conversation. Yeah. I gave him grief about that when I got back. But, um, it’s just one of the things he did, but it was interesting to know. Um, and I actually, at one point, uh, there were a couple of folks on the ground in the management chain who sent sort of an indirect message to me that they weren’t sure if they wanted me sending down so many photos and videos of what was going on.


They didn’t want anybody to retaliate against mission control or Moscow or anything. I said, look, you guys can do whatever you want to with the products that I sent down, but I feel it’s my job to record history in this particular situation. And I’m going to take all the pictures I can get, uh, because somebody might need them someday or might want to see ‘em.


And, uh, so I continued, I took thousands of pictures and I have no idea, no idea how many hours of video of what I was seeing every pass. Your photo that you took. The, what was then the morning of 9/11 is in the September 11th museum, the national Memorial in New York City. That is one of the more unique and iconic photographs of that day. What’s it feel like to be the photographer of one of those moments?


Uh, I’m not sure what word to use. I mean, photographers get lucky, you know, and sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time. Uh, you have the right settings or you do the right thing with the camera or you frame it correctly. Um, but if you see something you should record it. And I’ve always felt that way when I have a camera handy and, um, Uh, my main goal with trying to record those things and take that photo for example, is to share it with other people so they could see it from my vantage point and hopefully learn from it.


One of the things that crew members often do is have, uh, communications with various schools, communities to share the experience of what you’re doing. Did you have any communications with, uh, the people of New York or, um, in Virginia or Pennsylvania where these things occurred? Some of them. Yeah. Um, I did a lot of what we call school contacts using an amateur radio system we had on board.


Um, I think I was scheduled to do about maybe eight or 10 during the mission I found out they weren’t being done very often. So I did over 40 and, uh, kept pushing the ground to schedule more. And, uh, one of them was actually to Kathy Thornton’s daughter’s junior high school, which is how I found out they weren’t getting enough contact.


Cause Kathy sent me a note. Uh, so we had that connection even then, uh, and she and I were classmates as astronauts. After 9/11, Ellen Baker got in touch with me, and she said, I think it’s PS 33, I think is the number. Um, she said they were like, they were about three blocks from ground zero and they had to evacuate during the attack.


And they had to change schools three times over the next week because of all the rescue and recovery operations that were going on. And, um, and it really affected them and it was great. And, uh, the students and the teachers, um, she’s a native from New York and she said, do you mind, uh, doing, uh, uh, radio contact with these folks and, you know, just answering their questions and sharing a little bit about spaceflight.


I said, I’d be honored. And, uh, so I think it was in November of that year, I did make contact with the, with the school, answered their questions as thoroughly as I could. Um, one of the things I learned when I was up there early on was that it was great that they sent me the questions ahead of time, but eventually I had them make sure they sent me the answers to the questions because some of the kids ask really hard questions.


Um, but it was fun, uh, and meaningful to be talking to them. But, um, when you and I went to New York City on Flag Day of the next year to return the flags that were flown on the shuttle in honor of the people in New York and Washington, um, I had the, uh, again, the honor to go visit that school and talk to those kids that were there and to the teachers.


And it also was very meaningful for me. And I think for them to close the loop on that autumn, that we’ve talked to each other from space. And, uh, I was really fortunate to be able to do that. You continue your mission, you and your crewmates orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes. And obviously this remains the commanding news story of the world.


What’s happening. You go to return to planet Earth in December of that year, you left one world and came back to another. Did you really observe a different world when you returned? I did, and, um, uh, I was prepared for it. I mean, people have been sending me pictures and descriptions of what had happened in the days and weeks afterwards, and what changes have been made in security and with the airports, et cetera, and how a lot of things just weren’t accessible anymore.


You know, I saw pictures of the big concrete, you know, uh, pylons that were put in front of public buildings and all the other changes that were made and, uh, and the top security that, uh, heightened the security that was going on everywhere. Uh, so we, we sort of expected that, but until you actually see it, you don’t really know what it’s going to be like.


Um, uh, and so yeah, we did, we did come back to a different world and as we reacclimated and, you know, had to travel around the country around the world to, to, you know, for post-flight or to do our business or go anywhere. We saw it clearly. So for us, it was a big change. Uh, NASA handled it well. I mean, they, they briefed us on it and what to expect and, and, uh, it was sort of a gradual re-introduction.


Um, but in terms of reintegrating with my family and my friends, that all was pretty much what I expected. And they were all very gracious and welcoming and happy to see me back on Earth. apparently. You’ve helped train crew to go onboard Mir when NASA astronauts were on that. And obviously you trained with the crews that were part of the expedition crews for international space station.


So you’re trained and acclimated that you’re going to be missing family events, birthdays, family illnesses, even the potentially the loss of family members, but you and you, your crew had to experience what is a cataclysmic global change. What counsel would you offer future crews if something like a 9/11 event were to occur on their flights.


Well, um, that is discussed just amongst the astronauts and national crews. It’s also discussed with management before you go, and they will ask you if something bad happens in your family, how do you want to handle it? Do you want to know about it? Do you not want to know about it?


Uh, most people I know, want to know what’s going on. Um, I think a lot of us sit down with our families or our friends and talk about it. If something happens, and this is how I want to know, and this is what I might need from you as support on the ground, either for me, or for the other people that are affected by it.


If it’s a huge political event like this, my recommendation to crews is to stay the course. It’s just like flying–aviate first, keep control of where you are and what you’re doing. And don’t let the emotional part of that distract you from making sure that you’re keeping yourself and the station safe. All else is secondary until you get everything under control, whether there’s something happening in space or on the ground.


And so you’ve got to stay focused on the job that you’ve been trained to do. When you, you get a chance to take a breath or it’s the end of the day and you’re winding down from making sure everything is in order, then you can stop and reflect or maybe make some phone calls, uh, get some more information, but don’t be in a rush to know everything about everything, particularly if it’s something bad until you know, you’ve got yourself, your crew and your station under control.

What kind of support did you get from your Russian crew mates? Recognizing that you’d lost a classmate and a friend. And again, it was your country. That was attacked. The United States and Russia don’t always have the best of relationships. We seem to do spaceflight together pretty well. Kind of curious about the support you got from your Russian crew mates?


Well, first of all, at spaceflight, there’s one area where we are still working as we have been working on for, you know, over 20 years, which means we trust each other with our lives. We trust each other with our reputations in our careers, and we support each other in making sure that things are working.


Um, you know, the station’s bigger now, so the responsibilities, uh, divided up a little more, but, um, but the people on the ground and the people in flights still count on each other and trust each other and take care of each other. And it is a good relationship. My crewmates in this particular situation were very supportive of me.


They were concerned about their own families because of the previous attacks. And as we found out later, 94 Russians died in the World Trade Center. And, um, so it was clearly an international event. But they were very, very supportive. And if I needed some time, uh, with family, they gave you, um, on the phone or something, they gave me privacy. Um, and you know, we would all ask each other if we were okay.


But by the same token, we had to keep working. We had a module arriving in six days that we had to successfully dock with the station and make sure everything worked and not get distracted by that. And, um, um, I mean, I think we were doing a good job of recording what we could from the ground visually, particularly.


Uh, but we didn’t look at that. Let that get in the way of our, our day-to-day work. Um, when they, when they found out that I had lost a friend, they were very sympathetic and supportive and, as you would expect because we were all friends. And, um, and then even when I had a couple of life events happened, uh, that were loosely tied to the fact that 9/11 had occurred in and members of my family, they were also very understanding and supportive, so supportive of that. So, you know, we were, we were kind of like a family up there.


20 years later, what are your thoughts? Well, uh, a couple, um, you know, it was an honor to be there and to relate what I saw and hopefully it was helpful to people down here on Earth.


Um, I did realize partway through the mission a couple of weeks after that, that we were doing a lot of press conferences and sending down a lot of video of what was going on in the station and trying to do the routine that we had been trained to do. But I did realize at one point that I’m probably talking to about five people, because everybody else is focused on 9/11, and what’s going on in Afghanistan and whatever.


Uh, it didn’t bother me. Um, but, um, but I knew that spaceflight had taken a back seat to a whole lot of very important events in the world while we kept doing our job. Um, I think it’s important to realize we have not had another 9/11.


Um, the, the events of today and this past week in Afghanistan remind us of how fragile peace can be and how fragile our, um, nation and civilization and, and constancy can be. Uh, if we don’t maintain security the way we should. So I’m concerned about where things are going right now and whether anything else will happen.


I know we owe such a debt to our armed forces and the people in, in, uh, the positions of power in the, in the government who had made the right decisions to the safety that we have in fact enjoyed over the last 20 years from terrorists, but they’re still out there and we’ve still had incidents and they clearly are people who don’t like us, and we’re going to have to do everything we can to maintain our security.


At the same time, we don’t want to lose what we have, which is, um, our values of who we are as a, as a people, as a nation. Um, the security that we enjoy because we pay attention to the right things and our ability to live happy and independent lives because we live in the United States of America. And so we need to value those freedoms, um, as well as value our security, and pay attention, uh, as things change around the world.


By the same token, when you accomplish great things together, as international partners, it strengthens all the countries involved and sets a good example for how people should, should behave. So I think we need to continue to, to move in that direction.


And that concludes our conversation with Navy Captain and retired NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson. We are grateful for his sharing his story with us and allowing us to share it with you, our Space4U audience. We thank you for your time, and we look forward to sharing more stories with you in the coming weeks.


And remember, at Space Foundation we always have space for you. Thanks for listening.

Listen to the Podcast

Space4U Podcast: Frank Culbertson — former NASA astronaut, “The only US citizen not on Earth when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred”