Peter Birch has been an astronomer for 35 years. In 1962 he was 11 and Perth was a city of half a million. On that February night, most of them, including Peter’s family, left on their lights - against the wishes of the Lord Mayor!
[Peter Birch] That was a big deal in those days, to leave all the lights on overnight, because the lights always went out at 1 o’clock in the morning. It just seemed like such a good idea to me. I wouldn’t have thought that anyone would have opposition to it. You’ve got to remember this was the time of the space race. And I guess people would have felt that they were making their own contribution to the space race.
[Peter Birch] I can remember my father putting sheets out on the hills hoist clothesline and shining a light up from underneath…. Street lights and porch lights were left on. I guess no one knew whether he would actually see Perth. That was part of the excitement of it all. Will he be actually able to see it?
[John Glenn] Just to my right I can see a big pattern of lights, apparently right on the coast. [NASA] Roger.. that is Perth and Rockingham that you are seeing. [John Glenn] Roger, the lights show up very well and thank everybody for turning them on.
[Peter Birch] The push behind this and the excitement of it all was, that this is the first American to fly a full orbit around the earth. And as far as the space race went, that means we were one up on the Soviets at the time because they’d only done a man into space and back again. They hadn’t actually done a full orbit around the earth.
Working on the principle that two times is better than once, John Glenn did it again, and guess what, working on the same principle, so did Perth.
[Peter Birch] On the second trip in 1998 when John Glenn was 77 years old, he flew in the space shuttle Discovery, and we were able to monitor his orbit from Perth. He flew at a time of night when he wasn’t actually visible from the earth because the sun had set too far down. So we couldn’t see him, but he could actually look down and see the lights of Perth again in 1998.
[John Glenn] I’ve got a real good view of Perth. Two big centres of light there. A long time ago I looked at the same thing. A little lower altitude, but it looks beautiful. People of Perth ... we send our best regards.
[Peter Birch] I think it was a tag that stuck right round the world, Perth the City of Lights.