Frank Culbertson was the only American not on Earth when planes crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He was 200 miles above it, watching the smoke rise.
Culbertson was the commander aboard the International Space Station, with a crew of two Russian astronauts. They were over New England when terrorists struck in New York City. The next orbit, 90 minutes later, he could see smoke rise from Washington.
He was a long way from his hometown of Holly Hill.
On each pass for days, the smoke from the attacks was visible, he said. The sense of isolation, not being able to do anything about it, was wrenching, but “we had to get on with our job,” he said.
Thursday is the first designated National Astronaut Day, put together and promoted by Uniphi Space Agency, a marketing company that works with retired astronauts and raising money for related causes. The date was chosen as the anniversary of the day in 1961 that astronaut Alan Shepard rode a 15-minute suborbital flight, the country’s first human venture into space.
“We thought it was important to have a single focal point day for a call to action for everyone to think about what inspires them,” said Michelle Lucas, Uniphi industry relations vice president. “The Russians have Cosmonautics Day in honor of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space, so May 5th to honor the first American in space seemed like a natural choice.”
NASA has no ties to the group. A spokeswoman said the agency is grateful for the work its retired astronauts have done and credited their support for helping encourage a record-number of applications in a recent call for astronaut candidates.
“Astronauts have arguably the best job in the universe. They are essential to furthering the important science and research aboard the International Space Station and NASA’s journey to Mars,” said spokeswoman Cheryl Warner.
Culbertson, 66, is one of 20 retired “celebrity” astronauts helping promote the event. He wants young people to strive for goals like the Holly Hill child strived to go to space, to “have dreams. Not be afraid. Not let go of them,” he said.
Inside a chamber in space, you adjust the weightlessness, drifting around with the slightest nudge. But Culbertson stepped out the portal on the edge of a void.
“You’re floating inside your (space) suit. You feel like you’re like rock climbing, always looking for something to hang on to. It’s like being on the outside of an airplane while it’s flying. You have the whole universe around you and the Earth under you,” he said.
The second American commander of the station, he was aboard for four months.
Today, Culbertson is president of the Orbital ATK space systems group, a Virginia-based company that among other services operates a cargo delivery shuttle to the space station and builds satellites. He works closer with former NASA colleagues and enjoys the continued connection to space exploration.
Not that he doesn’t still dream. He’d like to go to Mars. When it was suggested he’d come a long way from Holly Hill, he gave a light laugh.
“Not as far as you might think,” he said.
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