Edgar Mitchell was an American naval aviator, test pilot, aeronautical engineer, NASA astronaut, the sixth man of 12 to walk on the Moon, a Ufologist, and a man intently interested in the nature of human consciousness. He passed away on February 4th aged 85, nearly 45 years to the day since he walked on the Moon.
‘Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate, sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery – it takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth – home.’
This vivid description of seeing the Earth from thousands of miles away is taken from Ed Mitchell’s part-autobiography, part-technical paper The Way of the Explorer. The sight of seeing the Earthrise from the Moon is something only 24 men in history have experienced. Just 12 of those men descended to the surface to become an elite fraternity that will forever be known as the first human explorers of another planetary body other than our own. Sadly, with the death of Mitchell in West Palm Beach, Florida this month, just seven of those men now remain.
The launch of Apollo 14 on January 31st, 1971 was watched with particularly intense interest by hundreds of thousands along the shores of Florida’s Space Coast, as well as throngs of the world’s media. It was after all the first mission since the ill-fated and near-disastrous Apollo 13 flight in April 1970, when the crew of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert were lucky to escape with their lives after an explosion en-route to the Moon.
With Mitchell on the Apollo 14 flight was commander Alan Shepard, who ten years earlier had become the first American in space with a quick 15-minute suborbital leap into the heavens. It was Shepard who famously hit a golf ball on the Moon with a makeshift club – however Mitchell went on to win this first ever ‘Lunar Olympics’ as his javelin throw went inches further than Shepard’s golf drive in the one-sixth gravity. The other member of the Apollo 14 crew was United States Air Force Colonel and former U.S. forest service smoke-jumper Stuart Roosa. He was the mission’s Command Module Pilot (i.e. the one that stayed alone in lunar orbit as his two crewmates descended to the surface in the lunar module.)
With the death of Mitchell, none of the Apollo 14 crew now remains to tell the story of the historic third manned landing on the Moon. Shepard, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, passed away in 1998 from leukemia at the age of 74, and he was predeceased by Roosa who succumbed to pancreatitis at the age of 61 in 1994. That means Apollo 14 is the first flown Apollo mission of which no astronauts are left, and only serves to highlight the fact that these men and their incredible stories should not and will not be forgotten.
It is safe to say the experience of flying to the Moon changed all of the men who did so in different ways and to varying degrees. However, perhaps there was no astronaut more philosophical and more in tune to our affinity with the universe than Ed Mitchell. He often spoke of experiencing an ‘epiphany’ on the return voyage from the Moon, and this was clearly something that affected him for the remainder of his life.
Mitchell was one of the most highly-rated of the fifth group of astronauts selected in 1966, ‘The Original Nineteen’. Of these 19, nine would make up the 24 men who flew to the Moon on Apollo missions. A naval aviator who first began learning to fly growing up in post-Depression New Mexico in the American south-west, Mitchell was always interested in the engineering aspect of flying. His father taught him the ins and outs of farm machinery at home, while pilots at the small local airport he worked at cleaning airplanes fatefully introduced him to the joys of flying. From Mitchell’s book The Way of the Explorer:
When I was 13 I took an ad hoc job at the local airport washing fragile airplanes made of light framing and lacquered cloth. When I was 14 I soloed in one of those planes myself, and experienced for the first time the sense of freedom found only in the seat of an airplane: release from the Earth.
He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Industrial Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 1952, before enlisting in the U.S. Navy the following year. While on active duty in the Navy, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1961, and a Doctor of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964. Mitchell was an intellectual, and yet someone who possessed a fervent passion for the philosophical. It was clear from the very outset of his naval aviation career however that he knew he was doing what he was destined to do:
I began my Navy career in the seat of an AT-6, which was then the Navy’s standard trainer. Not for some time would I climb into the cockpit of my first jet aircraft. Looking back on it now, the country seemed young and new then, with the advent of nuclear technology, the jet engine, and rocketry. The world itself seemed bright and colorful, poised for the extraordinary. Spaceflight was still only the dream of a handful of scientists. But when I did fly that first Navy jet, I knew this was where I was supposed to be.
Those were tense times for anyone flying in U.S. military planes, with the Korean conflict in full swing and the Cold War just becoming frigid. Mitchell and his fellow pilots flying in the Pacific were no stranger to danger – toward the end of his first overseas assignment, his plane was attacked by interceptors while on a routine night patrol near Shanghai. Mitchell and his co-pilot only avoided enemy tracer bullets thanks to the former’s quick thinking in putting his P2V aircraft into a dive.
Mitchell attended the Aerospace Research Pilot School in 1965 in order to be certified as a test pilot, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he graduated first in his class. All that remained after applying for the Astronaut Corps at NASA was the wait for a call from the Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton, and for Mitchell that call to re-locate to Houston eventually came.
One of the most defining moments of Mitchell’s life was his decision to focus on the lunar module as his area of expertise within the manned space program. He would fly weekly from Houston to Bethpage, Long Island with fellow astronaut Fred Haise to assist in the design, manufacture, and testing of the lunar module at Grumman Aircraft Corporation. His desire to learn everything there was to know about the lunar module likely cemented him in the minds of the powers-that-be and showed he was qualified and skilled enough to fly to the Moon as a lunar module pilot. Rumour has it when Shepard was asked why he wanted to fly with the two spaceflight rookies in Mitchell and Roosa he replied ‘Because I want to get home.’
Upon returning from his first and only spaceflight, Mitchell co-founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in 1973 which serves as a non-profit research institute into parapsychology and other phenomena. Mitchell was a very spiritual man who once wrote that “Death is merely the way nature renews itself and allows the creativity of the evolutionary process to proceed.”
His views on extraterrestrial life too have caused quite a stir over the last number of years. He has many times expressed the belief that Earth has been visited by aliens, and that there has been a government cover-up in the U.S. that has stopped this information becoming public. Having grown up near Roswell, New Mexico, the location of an incident in 1947 which prompted claims of UFO sightings in the area, it is perhaps no surprise that Mitchell has publicly declared an interest in and knowledge of incidents of ET visitations.
The sight of the Earth from the Moon was one which impacted all of those who landed on, and orbited, the Moon during the Apollo Program in the late sixties and early seventies. Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, felt as though he were “standing on God’s front porch”, Jim Lovell couldn’t believe how easy it was to cover the entire planet Earth with just his thumb, and Buzz Aldrin felt obliged to describe the lunar surface as “Magnificent Desolation” compared to his home planet.For these hardened engineers, test pilots and astronauts, having to express ‘how it felt’ on returning to Earth wasn’t something that came easily, but Edgar Mitchell put it well when he said, “We went to the moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians.”
I personally remember Ed Mitchell as a warm man to talk to; generous with his time, vivid with his recollections, and proud of a life well-spent. You can listen to my interview with him from October 2012 below.
I got married, I had children, I worked here and I worked there, it [going to the Moon] was just another part of my life. That’s my life and that’s what I’ve done. And hopefully it has all contributed to helping us understand ourselves in a much better way.