Fans of the movie The Right Stuff may remember a scene in which John Glenn sees brilliant sparks—which he likens to fireflies for lack of a better description—surrounding his Friendship 7 capsule. As Glenn watches these “fireflies,” the film cuts to a small group of Aborigines near Australia’s Woomera tracking station, and the sparks rising up to the heavens from their blazing bonfire.
Robert Folan of Hudson, Massachusetts, may have been thinking of this iconic scene when he asked us, “Did the Aborigines or others in Australia light signal fires that were visible from space for any of the [space] missions?”
Was there anything to the scene, or was it all a Hollywood fabrication? And would signal fires have been visible from space? For help in answering this question, we turned to Eric Jones who co-edits the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, and happens to live in Australia. Jones very kindly contacted a network of colleagues who worked at various Australian tracking stations during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, asking their opinions.
Perhaps the movie’s scene was inspired, in part, by the town of Perth, as that city’s residents were urged to turn on every conceivable light for Glenn as he made his lonely orbit. Jones includes an excerpt from John Glenn’s mission report, which indicates Glenn saw Perth’s lights clearly: “The lights of the city of Perth, in Western Australia were on and I could see them well. The view was similar to that seen when flying at high altitude at night over a small town. South of Perth there was a small group of lights, but they were much brighter in intensity. Inland there was a series of four or five towns lying in a line running from east to west. Knowing that Perth was on the coast, I was just able to see the coastline of Australia. Clouds covered the area of eastern Australia around Woomera, and I saw nothing but clouds from there across the Pacific until I was east of Hawaii. There appeared to be almost solid cloud cover all the way.”
Colin Mackellar supplies this link to an audio recording of Glenn commenting on the lights of Perth and Rockingham. Mackellar continues, “I don’t know of any reports of anyone seeing lights from campfires, though at least one of the Mercury astronauts saw a steam train by following the smoke back to its source.”
As for signal fires, Kerrie Dougherty, a curator at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia, is somewhat doubtful: “I am not aware of any attempts at lighting large bonfires…after all, it was high summer at the time and fire bans would probably have been in place which would have discouraged the lighting of bonfires in a lot of areas.”
Hamish Lindsay, a Honeysuckle Creek veteran and author of Tracking Apollo to the Moon, also hadn’t heard of any signal fires being lit, but worked on a project to help determine what crews could see from space. “For months I photographed a series of white shells south of Carnarvon for NASA for visual acuity evaluation [in-flight sightings and descriptions of ground views by the crew] by Gemini V. The shells were to be bulldozed into patterns, but when the time came for the tests, Gemini V was powered down and could not align themselves to view the ground below.”
Intriguingly, Keith Aldworth, a veteran of Woomera and the Tidbinbilla facilities, does remember fires being lit for some passes, but notes, “I did not personally witness any signal fires being lit, and I’m not even sure where they were supposedly lit. However, I have dim recollections of fires being either lit for, or noticed by, one of the early U.S. astronauts.”
If anyone has a specific recollection of signal fires, we’d love to hear it.