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Astronaut John Glenn loved watching sunsets in space

Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth. He returned in awe of the beauty of spaceflight.

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., pilot of the Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6) spaceflight, poses for a photo with the Mercury "Friendship 7" spacecraft during preflight activities.
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

In space, even the ordinary and the ugly takes on a new sense of wonder. When John Glenn was orbiting the Earth — the first American ever to do so — he noticed something strange and beautiful outside of his Friendship 7 spacecraft.

"I’m in a big mass of thousands of very small particles that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent," Glenn radioed during the flight. "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."

In reality, those particles were most likely just Glenn’s own sweat or urine being vented from the spacecraft, glittering, frozen in sunlight. When you’re one of the first few humans to travel into space, even the tiniest things are worth marveling at.

When Glenn returned to Earth on February 20, 1962, and spoke to reporters in a press conference, he didn’t talk much about his fears, about the danger, about the arduousness of the flight.

Instead, Glenn, who died Thursday at the age of 95, went on and on about the beauty and awe of spaceflight. “It was quite a day,” he said, according to the New York Times’s account. “I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets.”

During the press conference, he kept coming back to the sunsets, saying they were “the most impressive thing that you … see in orbital flight.” He added: “These are of very brilliantly colored hue and the colors stretch out — way out — from the sun for the horizon.” Then after the sun is down, he said, “certainly one of the most beautiful things is to be on the dark side with the full moon out.”

Glenn was also enamored of the feeling of zero gravity. “It sounds like I was an addict to it, and I think I probably am,” he said. “It was a wonderful feeling”

And Glenn knew these sights and feelings were just the beginning — and that greater achievements in human spaceflight were yet to come. “I think we’ve really hardly scratched the surface,” he said. “We had a lot of attention focused on this one right now, but our efforts haven’t really gotten us very far into space, if you think about it.”

He then explained that if his height represented the diameter of the Earth, his orbit would have been just a few inches above his head.

So perhaps if you think of the enormity of space it makes our efforts seems puny at this time. But these are all step-by-step functions we go through. As we said, all the manned space flights we’ve had to date have added information. This flight, I hope, added a little bit more and there are more to come.

Astronauts are still marveling at the beauty of spaceflight, and seeing sunsets and the Earth from the International Space Station. And today’s crop of astronauts, like Glenn, are just small part of a great exploration that’s yet to come.


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