The astronaut saw them when flying over Australia and the Canary Islands

The mystery of the space 'fireflies' that John Glenn saw from his spacecraft in 1962

Yesterday I was watching one of my favorite movies, "The Right Stuff" (1983), which chronicles the beginning of the American space race.

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This film has unforgettable moments, but perhaps one of the best comes during the part that tells of the Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) mission, with the Friendship 7 spacecraft, manned by John Glenn, which On this mission he became the first member of the US Marine Corps to travel to space and the first American astronaut to make an orbital flight, specifically three orbits, on February 20, 1962. The flight lasted 4 hours and 55 minutes.

Still from the film "The Right Stuff" in which Australian aborigines appear making a bonfire.

That part of the film is very magical. There are beautiful images of Australian aborigines lighting a bonfire, with the hypnotic sound of a didyeridoo, near the Muchea Tracking Station, in southwestern Australia, 60 km north of Perth. The incandescent ashes of the bonfire rise until they mix with the stars in the sky, and then the scene that motivates this article appears.

The image from the film in which Glenn sees what he describes as "fireflies".

That scene in the movie describes well something that really happened. John Glenn (Ed Harris played the astronaut in the movie) reported seeing something outside the ship, which he described as " fireflies". This is the Spanish translation of the radio conversation published by

John Glenn
This is Friendship Seven. I’ll try to describe what I’m in here. 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.

John Glenn
They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they’re all brilliantly lighted. They probably average maybe 7 or 8 feet apart, but I can see them all down below me, also.

Roger, Friendship Seven. Can you hear any impact with the capsule? Over.

John Glenn
Negative, negative. 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. Over.

John Glenn
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.

John Glenn
Are you receiving? Over.

The first time Glenn saw these fireflies he had flown over Australia, during the first orbit. Glenn saw them again when he was flying over the Canary Islands, during the second orbit, but then he verified that those small lights were not coming from the ship's engines.

A still from the film showing the supposed "fireflies" seen from the outside of the Friendship 7 spacecraft.

The aforementioned film surrounds this vision with a very magical air, which leaves the viewer in doubt about the true nature of the lights that Glenn saw. The mystery of space "fireflies" continues to stimulate the imagination of many people, and even inspired this theme song from Cosmic Space Traveler, titled "Friendship 7 Fireflies":

Obviously, there are no fireflies in space, since they are insects incapable of reaching that altitude. In reality, the mystery was solved three months later, on May 24, 1962, when astronaut Scott Carpenter flew into space on the Mercury-Atlas 7 mission. During that flight, Carpenter He observed that the "fireflies" were actually frozen liquid attached to the outside of the capsule.

An artistic recreation by NASA of the lights Glenn saw.

That frozen liquid was released when the ship passed from the dark part of the orbit to the part illuminated by the sun. Sunlight illuminated the loose bits of frost around the ship, giving it the appearance of fireflies. Carpenter confirmed what they really were by tapping on the wall of the capsule near the window, and named them "frostflies."

En 2012, cuatro años antes de su muerte, John Glenn relató la visión de aquellas luciérnagas en este vídeo de la NASA, en el que señaló también como el misterio fue resuelto por Carpenter:


Main image: NASA.

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