Getting to Know Edgar Mitchell

April 14, 2017
Ellen Mahoney

Edgar Mitchell, along with eleven other Apollo moonwalkers during six historic moon missions, helped change our perceptions of Earth. Suddenly, it was possible for humans to leave our planet and walk around and work on a different heavenly body. What an amazing feat.

Throughout his life, Edgar Mitchell did so many extraordinary things. In addition to being the Lunar Module Pilot for the 1971 Apollo 14 mission, he was an aviator, scientist, astronaut, explorer, visionary, entrepreneur, writer, speaker, caring person, and so much more. He founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in 1973, two years after returning from the moon. To this day it continues to conduct research on the fundamental nature of consciousness. There are not many individuals like Edgar, and I was honored to work with him during the last years of his life.

Writing with Edgar

I first met Edgar briefly in the mid-1970s. I had just graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in journalism and was looking for work in the San Francisco Bay Area. I wanted to be a writer, but the recession of the seventies made the job hunt discouraging. The world was changing at a rapid pace, however, and I felt hopeful.

When I learned IONS was looking for volunteers in 1975, I went right in to help. I remember typing a guest list for an upcoming fundraiser where rocket scientist Wernher von Braun was to be the guest of honor. When Edgar would occasionally walk into the conference room where I worked, he had a soft-spoken and commanding presence. I don’t remember conversing much with him at the time, and I admit I was a bit intimidated to meet an actual moonwalker, but I was glad I had the opportunity to volunteer at IONS at this early stage.

The Apollo program truly captured my attention and, like many baby boomers, I was glued to the television to watch the various missions. Of all the Apollo astronauts, Edgar Mitchell intrigued me the most. I had read about his fascinating ESP experiments in his spacecraft on the way to and from the moon. At the time I was also very interested in learning about paranormal topics such as ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance, near-death, and out-of-body experiences. I had read about Uri Geller and his ability to use his mind to bend a spoon. That was so interesting to me and I wanted to know more.

Nearly thirty-four years later in 2009, I contacted Edgar to interview him for a magazine article I was writing about the spiritual aspects of crop circles in England. During the phone interview, I went off topic and asked Edgar if I could write a book for young readers about his Apollo 14 adventures. Fortunately, he said, “Yes.” Once we began work on the book, I quickly realized there was a lot more to his story, and over time our work evolved to become Edgar Mitchell’s memoir, a young adult book titled Earthrise—My Adventures as an Apollo 14 Astronaut.

Writing Earthrise took many years and I conducted a great deal of research before ever interviewing Edgar about his life and work. I first read his books, The Way of the Explorer, and Psychic Exploration, and then watched a number of online videos and investigated numerous NASA websites about him. Edgar and I set up a weekly schedule to talk over the phone on Tuesday mornings; I lived in Colorado and he lived in Florida. Our conversations typically lasted from about 30 to 60 minutes and were recorded. After transcribing the audio, I would then draft chapters that were sent back and forth via email to Edgar for edits and rewrites. Edgar had a kind but businesslike demeanor throughout our calls, and we didn’t engage in much chitchat or small talk. He rarely cancelled our calls and was exceptional at getting back with me.

Edgar’s Childhood

Because Edgar’s memoir was geared to young readers, I thought it was important to focus on where he grew up and what his life was like as a child.

Edgar was born in 1930 and lived through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. It was fascinating to hear him share about living in the small town of Hereford, Texas, as a child. There, at four years old, he flew on his first airplane with his dad, J.T. Mitchell, when a barnstormer nearly crash-landed near their farm. After his dad helped the pilot refuel, Edgar got his first ride in a plane. When Edgar was five years old, his family moved to Roswell, New Mexico, in 1935. And then in 1944, the Mitchells moved to Artesia, New Mexico, when he was about fourteen.

Edgar came from a close-knit family and he had plenty of space to explore in the wide-open plains of the Pecos Valley of New Mexico. His grandfather, “Bull” Mitchell, and his father were cattle ranchers, and Edgar learned to ride a horse and rope cattle early on.  Edgar told me his grandfather lost everything in the Depression and had to rebuild his livelihood all over again one heifer at a time. Edgar’s mother, Ollidean Mitchell, was a devout Christian woman who played piano. He said music filled his home. Edgar learned to play the left-handed violin, and at one point he aspired to be a musician. Like many children of his era, he enjoyed reading about his favorite science fiction superhero, Buck Rogers. His two younger siblings were named Sandra and Jay, and the family would take vacations and camp and fish in southern Colorado.

I had so many questions for Edgar. Where did you play? Did you swim? What was your favorite sport? Who were your friends? Did you like school? What did you read? What was your favorite food? (He said it was his mother’s hamburger).

There is a great deal to talk about Edgar’s childhood, but here are a few highlights. He loved being in the local 4-H club in Roswell and when he was about ten years old his father gave him a steer to care for and groom. Edgar truly loved this steer, which made him feel very responsible and grown up.

Walking to elementary school in Roswell, Edgar passed the home of an elderly rocket scientist, Dr. Robert Goddard, whom he said some of the townsfolk called a “mad scientist.” Although Roswell was a small farming town, it became a key military hub for World War II in 1941 when Edgar was eleven years old. Pilots would learn to fly at the nearby Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF), which was later named Walker Air Force Base. Edgar would frequently look up and see warplanes flying overhead in training formations.

In Artesia, Edgar washed airplanes at the local airport to earn points toward flying lessons. He learned to fly solo a single-wing, two-seat Piper J-3 Cub prop plane at fourteen. One year later, on July 16, 1945 when Edgar was fifteen, he saw from his bedroom window a bright searing light he said appeared to come up from the distant Capitan Mountains. Edgar’s parents later explained the flash was from the explosion of the world’s first atomic bomb, codenamed “Trinity.” The bomb was set off some 200 miles from Edgar’s hometown in a remote desert section of the large land area now called the White Sands Missile Range (formerly White Sands Proving Grounds). When Edgar talked about this time in his life, it was hard to imagine him living so near to such an eerie place on Earth.

Two years later, on Tuesday, July 8, 1947, Edgar looked at the morning newspaper, the Roswell Daily Record, and read the headline, “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region.” Naturally, this caused quite a stir in the community and ignited Edgar’s curiosity about what had happened. Edgar said he and his good friend Tommy Brown thought about taking a scooter out to the crash site, but decided against it. They listened to the news all day, and the following morning, the Roswell newspaper came out with a second story saying the “UFO” was a weather balloon that had crashed. With that, Edgar, now seventeen, focused on the exciting months ahead when he would be off to college for the first time at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But the Roswell crash planted a seed in his mind about UFOs and extraterrestrials.

I always felt it made Edgar happy to think about these special times in his childhood and to be able to describe them to me. I also felt that where he grew up afforded him so many unique experiences that helped shape and prepare him for the many extraordinary things he would do as an adult.

To the Next Frontier

In 1957, after learning about the Russian launch of Sputnik 1, Edgar knew this was the frontier of space exploration and he wanted to be a part of it—big time. He had already become a skilled pilot in the Navy, and he later became a test pilot flying supersonic jets at Edwards Air Force Base in California, headed by the legendary Chuck Yeager. Edgar earned a doctorate in aeronautics at MIT, and was accepted into the NASA astronaut program in 1966. For nearly five years Edgar trained with NASA to travel to the moon.

As the Lunar Module Pilot for the Apollo 14 mission that lasted from January 31, 1971 to February 9, 1971, Edgar traveled to the moon and back with Commander Alan Shepard and Command Module pilot Stuart Roosa. Edgar was the sixth man to walk on the moon.

The discussions about the technical aspects of spaceflight were challenging for me, and Edgar was very patient in explaining how the spacecraft worked from launch, to trans-lunar injection, to transposition and docking, and just moving through space at a high speed. For years he worked on the design of the Lunar Module, so we talked a lot about that. Because the smaller Lunar Module was cramped, Edgar and Alan worked and ate standing up and slept in cots suspended in the craft. Their Lunar Module was tipped at a slight angle because one foot of the craft had landed in a small crater.

Naturally, a lot happened in the nine days during Edgar’s Apollo 14 mission, but I’ll never forget a few experiences he shared with me. He talked about conducting his ESP experiments in his personal time on the craft with four individuals back on Earth. He wondered whether thoughts could be transferred from miles away in space. Although he said he didn’t tell anyone about his private ESP experiments, the news eventually came out in the press after he returned.

During the mission, when Edgar and Alan flew the smaller Lunar Module down to the moon, it was near panic time when the abort light kept going on and the landing radar wouldn’t lock in. Edgar remained calm and worked with Mission Control to solve the problems. On the lunar surface, Edgar and Alan were in constant motion completing their assigned tasks, and Edgar was extremely disappointed the two were not able to make it to Cone Crater, a major geological site for Apollo 14. However, Edgar and Alan are on record for the longest moonwalk on foot of any Apollo astronaut. And after Alan took his famous golf shot on the moon, Edgar threw a makeshift javelin, and delighted in telling me the javelin went farther than Alan’s golf ball.

Coming “Home”

The ride home to Earth was transcendent and life changing for Edgar, and he talked a lot about this throughout his life. His major work on the moon had been done, and he said he could now relax as a “cosmic sightseer” and just enjoy the view. But something mystical and mysterious happened to him as he looked out the window at the majestic beauty of space and a stunning 360-degree panorama of the Earth, the moon, and the sun as his spacecraft rotated around and around to maintain thermal balance. Edgar said an incredible feeling of ecstasy washed over him every time he looked out the window. He said that on a molecular level, he felt completely connected to his spacecraft, his crew, and even the entire cosmos. It was a feeling of great connection accompanied by a sense of ecstasy.

When Edgar returned to Earth he felt driven to find out what in the world had happened to him. He began reading a great deal and talking with many people in science, anthropology, and spiritual and religious fields.  Individuals at Rice University in Houston told him about the ancient Sanskrit word, “Samadhi,” which means being in a heightened state of consciousness and feeling connected to the universe. This word best captured what Edgar felt. Edgar also liked the word, “Metanoia,” which means a “transformative change of heart,” because he felt his experience in the spacecraft was life changing. And, he sometimes referred to what happened to him as an “epiphany.”

When Edgar returned to Earth, he was a changed man. He became a peacenik and started to meditate. His Samadhi in space launched him on a pivotal journey to learn more about consciousness. He often asked, “What is consciousness?” He really wanted to know. His transformative Samadhi experience was key in his founding of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which he established for the ongoing study of consciousness. From 1973 on, IONS was a fundamental and very important part of his life.

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell was forever curious about Earth and its place in the cosmos. In his lifelong quest to unravel the great unknowns, he asked the big questions. Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?

It was such an honor and rewarding experience to get to know Edgar Mitchell. In addition to being a brilliant individual, I found him to be a very genuine and caring person. He reassured me that my own curiosity about paranormal subjects was a natural and good thing and there was no need to feel afraid. One of Edgar’s key messages was that we are not alone in the universe and we are all connected.

I once asked Edgar if there was a special book that meant a lot to him and without missing a beat, he answered, “Love is Letting Go of Fear,” by Dr. Gerald G. Jampolsky.

Like many, I will always remember the inimitable Apollo 14 astronaut—Edgar Mitchell.

Ellen Mahoney worked with Edgar Mitchell on his memoir for young adults titled, Earthrise—My Adventures as an Apollo 14 Astronaut, published by Chicago Review Press, 2014. You can also listen to a wonderful radio interview Ellen did recently about Edgar. For more information:

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