On his way out to the Moon, there simply wasn't time for Edgar Mitchell to contemplate the universe. The schedule was jam-packed, and the pressure was on. Mitchell, who had been part of the team that worked feverishly to bring Apollo 13 back home safely, was piloting Apollo 14's lunar module to the surface of the moon when he encountered two failures, one after the next. (Quick thinking saved the mission—Mitchell had to manually punch in 80 lines of code into an on-board computer with only minutes to spare.) And while Mitchell and crewmate Alan Shepard would have more time than anyone else to amble across the lunar surface, nine hours, the schedule remained tight, and there was important work to do in the name of politics (a flag to raise) but also of science (craters to find, rocks to collect, and for the first time, scientific experiments to set up).
On the way back, however, things were more relaxed, quieter. Mitchell took time to look out the window, and was transfixed by the sight of the largest thing he'd ever seen, the largest thing he'd ever known, floating in the dark. The moment would change his life, giving him a glimpse of a deeper, hidden nature.
"All of us had the experience—let's call it the overview effect or the big picture effect—of seeing Earth in its setting rather than as the end all and be all of living systems," Mitchell told me in 2012 (you can listen to some of our conversation on this episode of Radio Motherboard). "My own experience was a very powerful one—on the way back after my work was done… From looking at Earth from space you come up with the question, who are we, how did we get here and where's all this going? And that's an ancient, ancient question that humans have asked for a long time."
"My experience was to realize that perhaps our science is wrong at answering these questions and perhaps our religious cosmologies are archaic and flawed. And given that now we are an extraterrestrial civilization ourselves, we need to re-ask these questions, and do a lot more work to find the answers."
Mitchell, who passed away in February at the age of 85, was exceptional even among astronauts. Like the archetypal moon walker, he was a Boy Scout and a military test pilot with a protestant upbringing and an impressive command of engineering and aeronautics. His PhD dissertation at MIT was about designing a mission to Mars. Finally, in February 1971, after nine years of training and a three-day trip, he became the sixth man on the moon.
But more so than other astronauts, Mitchell's brief trip to outer space led to a lifelong exploration of inner space and an entire universe of unexplained phenomena. Continuing an unauthorized ESP experiment he began in the command module during his trip back to Earth, Mitchell became a connoisseur of parapsychology, conferring with mystic healers and psychics like Uri Geller (The other participants in the lunar ESP experiment—a group of psychics on Earth—said they received a number of Mitchell's messages correctly, even though the timing of his mental transmissions was out of sync with their reception on Earth. Mitchell said the timing didn't matter.) Later, he would examine allegations of alien visits to Earth and claim that governments around the world had sought to cover up the truth about UFOs. ("Dr Mitchell is a great American," a NASA spokesman said, "but we do not share his opinions on this issue.")
It just so happened that Mitchell spent much of his adolescence in Artesia, near Roswell, and was a teenager in July 1947 when the famous UFO crash happened there. He had spoken with people in the government who confirmed his suspicions, but confessed he had no hard proof. What evidence there was was enough for him, he said, and anyway, typical scientific proof could only go so far, he seemed to argue: so much about the universe remained mysterious, and deserved continuous, even highly speculative, exploration.
The Big Picture Effect
That was his major key, a theme that emerged from his return trip to Earth and the "interconnected euphoria" he experienced. Many if not all astronauts report that their global perspective changes, not just physically but psychically, once they've seen the Earth from space: a sublime feeling about nature, and that we're just scratching the surface of it, and that most of the time it is barely seen, much less understood.
"There was a sense that our presence as space travelers, and the existence of the universe itself, was not accidental but that there was an intelligent process at work," he wrote in his book The Way of the Explorer.
Kevin Ochsner, director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Columbia University, told Motherboard's Dave Simpson that the feeling seems to be something like awe, "a diminished sense of self in the face of something larger and bigger than you that has existed for a longer period of time than you. It's sort of incomprehensible within the lifespan of a single of person and it has interesting transformative effects on people in the short-term and long-term." The feeling of seeing the Earth from space might be the quintessential idea of the sublime, an idea plumbed by the Romantics. David Morris, a professor of English at the University of Illinois and a scholar of utopian 19th century literature, compares it to the experience of the whale—the idea that "nature can't quite be understood or confronted but one looks at it with awe."
After returning to Earth, Mitchell became part of the backup crew of Apollo 16, and in 1972 retired from NASA and the Navy. The next year he and the investor Paul Temple co-founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Northern California, a non-profit group dedicated to studying "how beliefs, thoughts, and intentions affect the physical world." The word "noetics," from the Greek noetikos, relates to a branch of philosophy concerned with the study of mind and the intellect. Mitchell sought to usher this study into the scientific realm.
The institute's website—which received a bump in traffic after its work was featured in The Lost Symbol, a novel by Dan Brown—quotes the psychologist William James describing the "noetic quality" of mystical states, which sound like the sort of thing Mitchell experienced in space: "states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority."
Bolstered by new explorations into consciousness and the quantum underpinnings of the brain, Mitchell promulgated a theory that all actions in the universe are imprinted upon a transcendent "quantum hologram." The notion that the entire universe lives on a hologram has become a focus for some theoreticians, but it's not the same as quantum holography, a method in modern physics that allows researchers to image hidden objects with entangled photons. This concept he described as "a giant hard disk in the sky," encoding every event and object across time and space.
The Camera, The Lawsuit
Mitchell's imagination was expansive, but he never imagined he would be named in a lawsuit by the U.S. government. That's what happened in 2011, after Justice Dept. lawyers sought to stop the sale of a camera that Mitchell had used on Apollo 14 and that had been given to him afterwards as a souvenir. For decades, it was customary at NASA for astronauts and their teams to take home mementos, and for decades, many of these objects have shown up at auctions. In 2014, another controversial camera that reportedly went to the moon—and said to be "the only one" that returned—fetched $760,000. It's not just equipment that gets put up for sale: at a space history auction last year, Alan Bean offered up a freeze-dried spaghetti dinner that he took to the moon and back, still in its original packaging.
But in recent years, NASA has vigorously sought to stop the sale of some of these artifacts, on the basis that they were never properly gifted to the people who have them. In "The United States of America Vs. Edgar Mitchell," the Justice Dept. claimed that Mitchell was not assigned clear title for the camera and that it was the "exclusive property of the United States."
Robert Pearlman, a space historian and the editor of CollectSpace.com, said this was the only instance he knew of in which the government had sued a NASA astronaut. But he sought to clarify that while Mitchell was named as the defendant in the lawsuit, he wasn't facing any charges, such as theft of government property. "The only question before the court was whether the camera belonged to the federal government," Pearlman wrote by email. "So the subtlety is that Mitchell wasn't guilty (or not guilty) of anything; it was simply the government wanting to regain control of the camera."
Mitchell argued that it has long been NASA custom to let astronauts take home souvenirs—he said he was told he could take the camera home—and that claims by NASA about stolen property were too old to be valid. In addition, he said, because the government had initially ordered the camera to be left on the moon, it had forfeited its ownership right to the camera. When Mitchell grabbed it at the last moment, he took ownership over it.
This practice of salvaging certain bits of the lunar module, for instance, was not uncommon. "All of this stuff would have been thrown away and crashed on the moon if we didn't do it that way." The quest to reclaim these objects was, he said, the result of "a bunch of rebels at NASA that are totally messed up about things."
But a judge threw out Mitchell's motion to dismiss the case, and in 2012, he came to a settlement with NASA in which he agreed to cede the camera to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. NASA subsequently sought to halt other sales, including of a glove used by the late Alan Shepard, a checklist and hand controller owned by James Lovell, and a lunar module identification plate and a hand controller from Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart.
A partial truce came later that year, after a successful lobbying effort by Mitchell and other former astronauts: a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama gave astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions full ownership rights over their mementos, provided they were allowed to take them home in the first place.
Until the end, however, Mitchell managed to keep another more important memento from his time in space. That "big picture effect" animated his entire being. Politics and wars, he said once, "look so petty" from space. "You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, 'Look at that, you son of a bitch.'"
Mitchell pointed out that UFO sightings were common near military bases, but not necessarily because they were actually just experimental aircraft or weapons tests: the alien presence was a warning. Mitchell noted that the Roswell crash occurred near America's largest weapons testing range at a time when it was developing its most powerful nuclear bombs. In his view, the Roswell aliens had crashed while on an important mission: to prevent the humans from destroying themselves and their home.
"Let's hope that that is exactly what the ETs, extraterrestrials, are trying to show us," he said. "We don't need to be this warlike civilization. We need to learn to be a cooperative civilization working together to solve our survival problems and our sustainability problems. Because right now civilization as we live it is not sustainable… it's a question as to whether we can make it through this century or not, the way we're doing things right now."
Podcast interview with Edgar Mitchell by Alex Pasternack and Kelly Loudenberg. Editor: Mark Leombruni