On February 20, 1962 astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in Mercury Spacecraft Friendship 7. At one point during the flight, John Glenn described some mysterious illuminated particles traveling in the company of his spacecraft. As the spacecraft flew over Australia, he saw thousands of little illuminated particles, floating around outside the capsule. He momentarily felt the illusion that the spacecraft was tumbling or that he was actually viewing a star field. Looking outside of the spacecraft window John Glenn could see that the "fireflies", as he called them, appeared to be streaming past his spacecraft from ahead. The partial transcript describes his observations as follows:
“I am in a big mass of some very small particles, that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little; they’re coming by the capsule, and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by.”
“They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted.”
“They’re very slow; they’re not going away from me more than maybe 3 or 4 miles per hour. They’re going at the same speed I am approximately. They’re only very slightly under my speed.”
“They do, they do have a different motion, though, from me because they swirl around the capsule and then depart back the way I am looking.”
The mystery of the “fireflies” was resolved in May of the same year on the next Mercury mission, Aurora 7, with astronaut Scott Carpenter on board. Scot Carpenter also saw the fireflies, or snowflakes, as he called them, and was able to determine the source from which they originated - they were tiny bits of frost from the side of the spacecraft. As the spacecraft passed from the night side to daylight condensation formed on the outside of the spacecraft and then froze again thereby creating a layer of frost. As the spacecraft once again came into daylight the frost began to flake off and float around the capsule. The bright sunlight illuminated the flakes which made them appear “luminescent.” Banging on the side of the spacecraft caused more flakes to come off came off.
My artwork is a depiction of Friendship 7 as the craft orbits in the company of the mysterious “fireflies”.