19-9-1930 – 4-2-2016
Becoming the sixth man to walk on the moon was not a wholly positive experience for Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Looking down upon the Earth he felt our planet was “in a critical condition”, causing him to lament the “massive insanity which had led man into deeper and deeper crises on the planet.”
As he declared three years after the mission: “Above all, I felt the need for a radical change in our culture. I knew we were replete with untapped intuitive and psychic forces which we must utilise if we were to survive, forces that Western society had programmed us to disregard.”
That is why, while his fellow astronauts slept, Mitchell conducted his own “extrasensory perception” experiments on the trip home. He concentrated on symbols on a set of cards he had brought with him in the hope that four people he had selected back on Earth could read his thoughts. He reported later that of the 200 guesses by his contacts back on Earth, 51 correctly identified his selections.
Mitchell was 85 when he died, one day short of the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 14 moon landing. The flight, launched on 31 January 1971, took Mitchell and fellow navy officer, Alan Shepard to the moon’s Fra Mauro highlands. Shepard had been America’s first man in space 10 years earlier. Stuart Roosa of the airforce remained in orbit, snapping photographs of potential sites for future missions.
The first two flights to the moon — the epic Apollo 11 of July 1969 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and Apollo 12 four months later — were largely devoted to testing whether men could survive there, albeit for brief periods. Apollo 13’s scheduled moon landing had been aborted by a near-disastrous oxygen tank explosion.
For Apollo 14, scientists were counting on Mitchell and Shepard to be the first astronauts to return with a large collections of rocks from high elevations, where some might be old enough to provide clues to the moon’s origin and its evolution. (Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 had landed in fairly level areas.)
Spending just over nine hours on two moonwalks, the astronauts collected more than 42 kilograms of rocks, piling them in a two-wheeled cart they were hauling. But they missed out on completing one important task.
NASA had hoped that they could climb to the rim of the nearly 120m-high Cone crater and collect especially significant rock samples there.
However, in lugging the cart, the astronauts found the climb to be difficult and experienced rapid heartbeats. Mission control, concerned about exhaustion and wary of time constraints, ordered them to turn back. Unbeknown to the men at the time, they were only about 20 metres from their goal.
However Shepard did find time to experiment with the three golf balls he took with him on the trip. Wielding a makeshift 6-iron, he hit a shot – televised back to Earth – that travelled “miles and miles and miles” in lunar gravity only one-sixth that of the Earth. (The shot was presumed to have gone more than six times his normal range with a 6-iron back on Earth.)
Edgar Dean Mitchell was born in Texas, and grew up in New Mexico. He became fascinated by flight after watching crop-duster pilots flying biplanes from an airfield near his home and obtained a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1961. He earned his doctorate, in aeronautics and astronautics, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964. He graduated from test pilot school, then joined the astronaut corps in April 1966.
Apollo 14 was Mitchell’s only spaceflight. He retired from NASA and the navy in 1972. His two marriages ended in divorce.
Mitchell created a stir in 2008 when he told a British radio station that his military contacts had told him that “we’ve been visited on this planet, and the UFO phenomena is real,” but that governments had “covered up” the matter for at least 60 years. (His boyhood home was 100km south of Roswell, New Mexico, site of the celebrated claim of a UFO crash and a government cover-up in 1947.)
NASA responded quickly: “We do not track UFOs. NASA is not involved in any sort of cover-up about alien life on this planet or anywhere else in the universe.”
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