Dramatic pictures of an astronaut watching the aftermath of 9-11 terror attacks from 250 miles above the Earth are part of a ground-breaking Channel 4 season Live from Space to be shown later this month.
The highlight of the season will be an unprecedented two-hour live broadcast from the International Space Station as it makes one of its 92-minute orbits of planet Earth at 17,500 miles per hour. The programme is being made in conjunction with Nasa, which has given the London television company Arrow Media unprecedented access to its astronauts and Mission Control in Houston.
An accompanying documentary, Astronauts: Houston We Have a Problem, includes footage of astronaut Frank Culbertson as he acted as a sentry in space on 11 September 2001, scouring the Eastern Seaboard for signs of further attacks in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Culbertson was the sole American astronaut on the third mission to man the ISS. He heard the news of the attacks when he called Earth for a routine medical check-up and was told “Frank, we’re not having a very good day down here.” As he was being told of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, news was relayed to him of the final hijacked plane crashing in Pennsylvania.
“I raced round and found a video camera and a window facing in the right direction,” he says on the documentary. “The weather was perfectly clear that day and you could easily see New York City. There was a big black column of smoke coming out of the city. As I zoomed in with the video camera I could see this big grey blob enveloping southern Manhattan. What we were seeing was the second tower coming down.”
In a clip from 11 September 2001, Culbertson can be heard telling Mission Control: “We can see New York City and the smoke from the fires. Our prayers and thoughts go out to all the people there and everywhere else. Here I’m looking up and down the east coast to see if I can see anything else,” he said. “I just want the folks in New York to know that their city still looks very beautiful from space.”
Nasa arranged for him to speak to his wife that evening. But the next day he was given the news that the captain of the American Airlines flight which crashed into the Pentagon was his friend Charles “Chic” Burlingame, a former colleague in the drum and bugle corps. Culbertson filmed himself in space as he took out his bugle “to remember our classmate Chic Burlingame” and played Taps, the American equivalent of the Last Post.
The same documentary includes Nasa archive footage of astronaut Luca Parmitano coming closing to drowning from water that builds up inside his space helmet as he carries out a space walk outside the craft in July last year. Parmitano is filmed as he tries to feel his way back to the safety of an airlock in total darkness with water – from a leak in his drink supply - covering his eyes and nose.
Tom Brisley of Arrow Media admitted his surprise that Nasa had been so positive about his “crazy idea” to make a live show from the space station. “I was expecting them to say it will never happen in a million years, [but] they engaged in the dialogue,” he said. “We met with the astronauts and the astronauts were saying we are really tired of being seen as these corporate people who sit there in space and do these interviews. What we want to show is what it’s really all about.”
The live show, which will be broadcast on Sunday 16 March and is being hosted by Dermot O’Leary, will follow astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata as the space station goes around the Earth.