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Image: View of 9/11 scene
NASA file
This photo of metropolitan New York City was taken by an Expedition Three crew member onboard the International Space Station on Sept. 11, 2001. A smoke plume rises from the Manhattan area where the World Trade Center was destroyed. The orbital outpost was flying at an altitude of about 250 miles.
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updated 9/9/2011 1:51:53 PM ET 2011-09-09T17:51:53

The 9/11 terrorist attacks 10 years ago this week sent shockwaves not just around the planet, but into space as well.

The only American not on Earth on that day in 2001, NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson, had a unique vantage point on the attacks. From the International Space Station, Culbertson snapped a photo of smoke streaming from the World Trade Center wreckage that day after two hijacked planes crashed into the Manhattan towers.

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"I didn't know exactly what was happening, but I knew it was really bad because there was a big cloud of debris covering Manhattan," Culbertson said in a new video released by NASA for the 10th anniversary of the attacks. "That's when it really became painful because it was like seeing a wound in the side of your country, of your family, your friends."

Overwhelming isolation
Culbertson, a retired U.S. Navy captain, was commanding the orbiting laboratory's Expedition 3 mission and was living on the outpost with Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Turin at the time.

"My crewmates have been great," Culbertson wrote in a letter published the day after the attacks. "They know it's been a tough day for me and the folks on the ground, and they've tried to be as even keeled and helpful as possible. Michael even fixed me my favorite Borscht soup for dinner," he added, referring to Turin.

Ultimately, though, the NASA astronaut couldn't help but be affected by his position as the only American in space.

"The most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation," Culbertson wrote. "The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming."

Culbertson was told of the event, which killed about 3,000 people, when NASA flight surgeons radioed the station.

"I had just finished a number of tasks this morning, the most time-consuming being the physical exams of all crew members," Culbertson recalled. "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."

NASA
NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson was commander of the International Space Station during the 9/11 attacks.
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Culbertson described being "flabbergasted, then horrified" by the news. He noticed the space station was just about to pass over New England, and rushed to try to see.

"I zipped around the station until I found a window that would give me a view of NYC and grabbed the nearest camera," Culbertson wrote. "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."

Mourning a friend
Culbertson said he understood early on that the attacks would change history.

"I know that we are on the threshold (or beyond) of a terrible shift in the history of the world," he wrote. "Many things will never be the same again after September 11, 2001. Not just for the thousands and thousands of people directly affected by these horrendous acts of terrorism, but probably for all of us. We will find ourselves feeling differently about dozens of things, including probably space exploration, unfortunately."

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The astronaut learned that day that his friend and U.S. Naval Academy classmate Charles "Chic" Burlingame was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which struck the Pentagon.

"What a terrible loss, but I'm sure Chic was fighting bravely to the end," Culbertson wrote. "And tears don't flow the same in space."

Despite the emotional difficulty, Culbertson served out the rest of his mission successfully. After spending 129 days in space, he landed on Dec. 17, 2001, aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.

Culbertson is now retired from NASA and serves as senior vice president for human spaceflight programs at the commercial spaceflight company Orbital Sciences.

In the new video, Culbertson said he hopes the country won't forget the attacks, or the lessons they taught.

"I think it's important for people to continue to learn the lessons from this and make sure that we are in fact making ourselves a better country as a result of it, not regressing or turning inward, or changing ourselves into a society that we won't be proud to pass on to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren," Culbertson said.

Honoring the victims
In September 2001, the International Space Station was still young; its first module was launched in 1998. The outpost is now about the size of a football field and has been home to a continuous human presence for more than 10 years.

In the years since the attacks, NASA has honored the victims in various ways.

In December 2001, the agency launched 6,000 U.S. flags aboard the space shuttle Endeavour for the families of Sept. 11 victims in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. That mission also flew flags recovered from the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Pennsylvania sites of the attacks.

In January 2010, NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, a native New Yorker, dedicated an American flag flown on the space shuttle Atlantis in May 2009 to the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum under construction at the ground zero site.

Even the two Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, currently on the Red Planet, each carry a piece of the American flag cut from debris at the World Trade Center. The flags are on dust covers built by New York City robotics firm Honeybee Robotics.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom  and on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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