THE ASTRONAUT WHO NEVER CAME DOWN
On his way home from the moon, Edgar Mitchell had a vision. As the Apollo 14 spacecraft slowly spun to regulate heat, the earth, stars, and sun passed in his window. Suddenly “I realized that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft had been manufactured in an ancient generation of stars.” Mitchell felt “an overwhelming sense of oneness, of connectedness. It wasn’t them and us, it was ‘That’s me. That’s all of it. It’s one thing.’”
Only a dozen men walked on the moon. From that pinnacle, all descended into daily life. Some became professors, politicians, CEOs. But only one went from the moon to a lifelong search for meaning, wherever that search might lead.
Life took Edgar Mitchell from the plains of West Texas to the moon’s Fra Mauro Highlands. There, on February 5, 1971, he became the sixth man to walk on the lunar surface. But it was his homeward epiphany that led him into fields that that seem a little, well, spacy. ESP. Psychokinesis, the bending of objects with the mind. UFOs. Altered states of consciousness. . .
Mitchell’s lifelong search began with boyhood questions. His mother’s Southern Baptist faith offered answers. Science offered others. But his own purpose came at age four when a barnstorming pilot landed a biplane in the wheat fields near his house. Offered a ride, the young boy soared. And never stopped soaring.
Like other astronauts, Mitchell became a test pilot. Landing on aircraft carriers, streaking towards the stratosphere, he dodged death daily. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Mitchell saw his future in space. Set on becoming an astronaut, he earned an advanced degree in aeronautics from M.I.T. Then in 1966, NASA came calling. Four years later, Mitchell was slated for Apollo 13 but the illness of crewmate Alan Shepard put a different team on that ill-fated flight. When Mitchell’s turn finally came, he devised a side trip NASA never imagined.
Shortly before the flight, Mitchell met some MIT professors studying ESP. The puzzling ability of SOME people to perceive the thoughts of others seemed to work across a room. How would it work across outer space? Mitchell agreed to a test.
On the way home from the moon, Mitchell linked random numbers to a series of symbols, then mentally projected them homeward. “For each transmission, I would then check the particular table of random numbers and think about the corresponding symbol for 15 seconds. Each transmission took about six minutes.“ Back home he learned that two of his four receivers got 51 of 200 “guesses” right, “far exceeding anything expected.”
Mitchell told no one, but word leaked. A week after the flight, Alan Shepard shared a headline — “ASTRONAUT DOES ESP EXPERIMENT ON MOON FLIGHT.” Shepard laughed. What lies would the media dream up next? Then Mitchell told Shepard the truth. Shepard looked bewildered, then smiled. The two men said nothing more about ESP.
Mitchell might have remained with NASA but other worlds were calling. In 1972, he retired and soon co-founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Northern California. The idea, he explained, was to merge spirituality with science.
“Science and religion have lived on opposite sides of the street now for hundreds of years,” Mitchell said toward the end of his life. “So here we are, in the twenty-first century, trying to put two faces of reality – the existence face and the intelligence or conscious face – into the same understanding. Body and mind, physicality and consciousness belong to the same side of reality.”
The institute expanded Mitchell’s epiphany, sometimes beyond the fringes. “It has been a bit of a challenge, at times, to keep it from becoming a church,” he said. “Some of the folks I’ve come across in my lifetime have held some eccentric and dogmatic beliefs about space and the cosmos. And on many occasions it has seemed as though I was expected to become a high priest in some new kind of religion.”
And Mitchell himself sometimes floated untethered. Did he believe UFOs are real? That NASA knows about them? “NASA is not involved in any sort of cover-up about alien life on this planet or anywhere in the universe,” an agency spokesman said. “Dr. Mitchell is a great American, but we do not share his opinions on this issue."
Was his cancer cured by a mind-healer? Is there a “quantum holograph” that keeps a record of all human activity? Once you’ve walked on the moon, anything seems possible.
“It’s important to realize that our solar system has a finite lifetime,” Mitchell said. “We’re about halfway through it – we’re about five billion years old, so our solar system maybe has another five billion years to go at most.” Told that five billion years was “not very long,” Mitchell answered, “No, not in ecological, geologic time. But it gives us time to get our act together if we hurry up.”