Video: 'Zero-G, and I feel fine'

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/12/2011 8:41:24 AM ET 2011-05-12T12:41:24

Image: "Moon Shot"
Open Road Integrated Media
"Moon Shot" recounts the story of the early space effort. NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree has updated the book, written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton as co-authors, for the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. and Soviet spaceflights.

All was right for John Glenn and his Mercury spacecraft, Friendship 7. The two rocketed into orbit as one, and after crossing Africa, Glenn became the first American to witness a sunset from space.

“This moment of twilight is simply beautiful,” he reported from high above the Indian Ocean. "The sky in space is very black, with a thin band of blue along the horizon.  The sun went down fast, but not quite as quickly as I expected.  For five or six minutes there was a slow but continuous reduction in light intensity, and brilliant orange-and-blue layers spread out 45 to 60 degrees on either side of the sun, tapering gradually toward the horizon.”

He offered other glowing descriptions of the planet sliding by beneath him. He spoke of the snow-white mantle covering high mountains, the rich deep green of Bahamian waters and the sculptured sands of the deserts. He peered down at volcanoes and saw avalanches, told of sun reflecting off the clouds and the highest spires of great cities.

In the blackness, each massive thunderstorm became a giant light bulb, spitting and snarling with electrical fire. Observing a string of thunderstorms, flattening out along the horizon, it seemed as if he was approaching a battlefield with guns flashing and rockets firing and bombs bursting. It was incredible.

Suspended in the blackest velvet of night, only the motors and instruments of Friendship 7 offered any sounds. The remainder of the universe had gone mute. His eyes became acclimated to the darkness, and he turned down the lights of his instrument panel.

Moving through the velvet night, Glenn began to see the stars.  They appeared first as a filmy haze, became defined as a blanket, and then he was staring at the brightest, most clearly defined celestial engines he had ever seen — the stars, in a glory until so very recently never seen by the eyes of humans.

As he quickly completed his first run through the night he could see the thinnest crease in the darkness, a fairyland breath of slivered light. The breath became a whisper. Then, swiftly growing to a riotous shout of color, the horizon was transformed magically into a vivid, glowing crescent that separated night from day.

As the sun stabbed across half of the capsule structure, the other half lay in shadow and the dim reflected light from the planet below.

Suddenly John Glenn was no longer alone.

Surrounding Friendship 7, like tiny light motes from some fable of fairyland, were thousands of tiny creatures.  Some came right to his window, and he stared in wonder at the tiny specks.  Then he saw they were frost and ice. Some were shaped like curlicues. Others were spangled and starry, like snowflakes sailing and dancing and swirling in an incredible swarm about the spacecraft.

Glenn was beside himself with awe and curiosity and fascination.  He had no idea where this stunning phenomenon had originated. “I’ll try to describe what I’m in here,” he radioed the ground. Those below in the tracking station on Canton Island snapped to.

"I’m in a big mass of thousands of very small particles that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent," Glenn went on. "They are bright yellowish-green.  About the size and intensity of a firefly on a real dark night. I’ve never seen anything like it."

"Roger, Friendship Seven, this is Canton Capcom,” came an immediate answering voice.  “Can you hear any impact with the capsule?  Over.”

“Negative, negative.  They’re very slow,” Glenn responded.  “They’re not going away from me at more than maybe three or four miles an hour.”

The ground team was awestruck, but hardly more so than Glenn. Both sides did their best to determine what was going on “up and out there.”

Just as suddenly as they appeared, the shining specks vanished as Friendship 7 sped over the Pacific expanse into brighter sunlight.  But they were back on the next sunrise, and the next, illuminated by the rays of that rising ball of fire.

Solving the mystery of John Glenn’s “fireflies” would have to wait until the next American, Scott Carpenter, sailed into Earth orbit.

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Carpenter, believed by many to be America’s first scientist astronaut, entered the final sunrise of his mission with a bang of his hand against the inside wall of his Mercury capsule, known as Aurora 7.

The moment he struck the wall, he was flying through a swarm of "fireflies" like the ones John Glenn saw.  Again he struck the capsule bulkhead, and more fireflies showered into view.   Scott Carpenter proved beyond a question that the mysterious fireflies originated from vapor vented from the spacecraft.  Vapor produced by the astronaut’s own body.

Scratch one space mystery.

More from 'Moon Shot':

Excerpted from "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton with Jay Barbree. Reprinted with permission. Published by Open Road Integrated Media, copyright 2011. "Moon Shot" is available from Apple iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, Sony Reader Storeand OverDrive.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Timeline: NASA's glory days

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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