One of the great moments in the early years of the Space Race came on February 20, 1962, as John Glenn’s Mercury-Atlas 6 (christened by Glenn as Friendship 7) finally launched from Cape Canaveral at 9:47am EST, making Glenn the fifth human to achieve spaceflight, and the first American to orbit the earth.
Glenn completed his first orbit of the Earth in just 88 minutes, doing so 3 times over during a flight that lasted 4 hours and 55 minutes, and in celebration of this moment in human history, the people of the remote Australian country town known as Perth, plus the satellite outpost of Rockingham, wanted to be noticed by Glenn as he orbited over the dark side of the earth (Which was close to midnight of the 21st in Perth), so they turned on all the lights they could find, from the flares of the Kwinana oil refineries, to car headlights and torchlights.
It should also be remembered that during the years of Project Mercury, NASA had a tracking station in Muchea, 60km north of Perth, which featured very prominently in Glenn’s orbit, alongside the tracking station in Woomera, South Australia, and the reason people forget Muchea is because it was phased out in 1964, in favour of the more well-known Carnarvon Tracking Station, which worked on the Gemini and Apollo programs.
Sure enough, Glenn noticed the lights in an exchange with NASA’s Muchea CapCom (And fellow Mercury 7 Astronaut) Gordon Cooper, just prior to midnight AWST on February 20, approximately 50 minutes into the flight:
Glenn: “Just to my right I can see a big pattern of lights apparently right on the coast. I can see the outline of a town and a very bright light just to the south of it. On Down….”
CAPCOM: “Perth and Rockingham, you’re seeing there.”
Glenn: “Roger, the lights show up very well and thank everybody for turning them on, will you?”
CAPCOM: “We sure will, John.”
Apparently that bright light was the old Kwinana Oil Refinery, which shut just last year.
Yes, being noticed by an American hero like John Glenn was the most noteworthy event to occur to Perth in 1962, just ahead of the Commonwealth Games at Perry Lakes, with then-Perth Lord Mayor Sir Harry Howard (Who encouraged the light show) attending Glenn’s ticker tape parade in New York City a fortnight later, and the city of Perth became forever known as the ‘City of Light’.
Up yours Paris.
36 years after the Friendship 7 triple orbit, then-Senator Glenn returned to space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-95) at the age of 77 in October of 1998, while serving out his final term as US Senator for Ohio, making him the oldest person to travel into space, and the people of Perth once again turned on their lights, and Glenn didn’t forget them:
As Glenn mentioned during a video for the 50th Anniversary of the Friendship 7 orbit:
“It was some 36 years later when I was on the Shuttle Flight STS-95 that once again the track was going to take our orbital flight right over Perth, and once again we were going to see if I could see Perth and see how things had changed, this time from inside the shuttle instead of the Mercury spacecraft where I was all alone….”
“This time we came across the Indian Ocean and there was an undercast and I couldn’t see anything on the ground – No lights or anything – And it opened up just before we came over Perth, and this time I could see the ground again, and it looked to me as though the lights of Perth and Rockingham were even more vivid than they had been back 36 years before in 1962.”
“So it was a great view and once again we were happy to be able to say hello to the people of Perth on that dark side of the earth as I was going around.” – John Glenn in 2012, on the 50th Anniversary of Friendship 7
Of course, in case you missed it, last night in Perth there was a drone light show in the CBD, in celebration of the 60th anniversary of Glenn’s triple orbit: