The Metaphysical Astronauts
Why so many astronauts like Edgar Mitchell have life-changing epiphanies in space—and return to Earth forever changed.
Edgar Mitchell on the Moon. Image: NASA
When Edgar Mitchell died last week, the flurry of obituaries that followed each noted his impressive career as an astronaut; specifically, that he was the sixth person to walk on the Moon. Much further down, they might also mention that Mitchell had an epiphany in deep space, and, finally, go on to describe some of the out-there ideas that he developed in the 45 years between that epiphany and his death.
Mitchell was arguably the Apollo astronaut with the most publicly unconventional views—he practiced ESP, credited a teenage dream healer from Vancouver with curing his kidney carcinoma, and repeatedly claimed that the government was covering up visits made by extraterrestrials—but he's by no means alone. A number of the 24 men who have to date left the Earth's orbit have had similarly existential moments that forever altered their trajectories once back on the planet.
It's important to note that the Apollo astronauts were selected for the 238,000-mile journey, in part, for their rock-solid stability, says Gloria Leon, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who's worked with NASA since the 1990s. These were the hard math and science guys, born in the early 1930s, who graduated from top universities and flew jets for the military.
Mitchell, for instance, got his undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University before receiving a masters in aeronautical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School and then a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After college, he became a Naval Aviator, flying jets off of aircraft carriers.
"The astronaut is part of a cosmos, is part of some sort of larger entity, larger process, and this is a very emotionally significant experience"
"The first groups of astronauts were these macho guys," Leon said. "The test pilots, you looked at the statistics of mortality, most of them never survived. I mean the mortality rates were incredible, so you have these groups of people that are not focused on spiritual issues."
Yet Mitchell had a life-changing moment while his spacecraft was returning to Earth. Apollo 14 was the third manned mission to the Moon and the first since the disastrous Apollo 13 mission. It had been Mitchell's job to pilot the Lunar Module and perform scientific tests on the Moon's surface. When the bulk of his task was done, he felt he could relax. The ship was in what the astronauts called "barbecue mode," because it was spinning like a pig on a spit as they returned to Earth, with views, resetting every two minutes, of our planet, Moon, Sun, and the heavens.
"I'd studied astronomy and I'd studied cosmology and fully understood that the molecules in my body and the molecules in my partners' bodies and in the spacecraft had been prototyped in some ancient generation of stars," he said in the short documentary, Overview. "In other words, it was pretty obvious from those descriptions: We're stardust."
After returning from space, Mitchell—and several other astronauts—described a physical feeling of oneness with the Universe. Mitchell called it the "Big Picture Effect." Others have deemed it the Overview Effect, a phrase that writer Frank White coined in 1987 after interviewing dozens of astronauts. It refers to an attitude or perception shift that occurs after they see how fragile and small the Earth appears from space. Other terms for the phenomena include the sublime, or, simply, awe. Gloria Leon calls it universalism.
"The astronaut now in this case, is part of a cosmos, is part of some sort of larger entity, larger process, and this is a very emotionally significant experience," she said.
Rusty Schweickart never walked on the Moon, but he did orbit the Earth. It was during a spacewalk, when his colleague's camera jammed and he had five minutes to kill, staring at the Earth, that his life changed.
"It was a time when I said, OK I'm just going to be a human being here and look at what's happening," he told the XPrize Foundation last year. "How did I get here? Humanity has reached this point where we're moving out from the earth. I'm a small part of that but that's what's going on and how does that happen in history? And what does it mean? And when I say how did I get here, who am I? Am I me or am I us? That is very clear that you're there as a representative of humankind."
Schweickart took up Transcendental Meditation and has spoken publicly numerous times about this epiphany.
So what is it that drove these astronauts—many who are engineers, physicists, and analytic thinkers—away from science and to the metaphysical; and sometimes to what many may consider more fringe ideas?
Kevin Ochsner, director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Columbia University, says such a spacebound epiphany is like the psychological experience of awe, which, research has shown, can have positive emotional impacts on those who experience it.
"You'll experience this sense of 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," Ochsner said. "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."
Gene Cernan, the eleventh man on the Moon, had more than a spiritual experience in space.
"I felt that I was literally standing on a plateau somewhere out there in space, a plateau that science and technology had allowed me to get to," he said in the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, "but now what I was seeing, and even more important, what I was feeling at that moment in time, science and technology had no answers for, literally no answers."
Cernan saw logic and purpose to the Universe but stopped short of ascribing it to a Christian god.
"There has to be somebody bigger than you and bigger than me, and I mean this in a spiritual sense, not a religious sense," he said. "There has to be a creator of the Universe who stands above the religions that we ourselves create to govern our lives."
George Loewenstein, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, meanwhile, brushed off the notion of the Overview Effect, pointing out that these astronauts were aware, perhaps more than anyone, of their insignificance relative to the Universe.
In a phone interview, Lowenstein ranked his theories for the cause of the grand existential moments described by the metaphysical astronauts, and resultant spiritual searching from least cynical to most. I'll paraphrase them here:
1. The danger and fragility of the mission causes the astronaut to question his mortality.
2. It is this peak moment and the rest of his life will be pursuit of something as meaningful.
3. It's an attempt to grasp at the fading fame and limelight.
Meanwhile, David Morris, an English lecturer at the University of Illinois who's studied religious and utopian literature from the late 20th century, said that for many of these astronauts, the mission itself posed existential questions.
"The way they're understanding it is always historically based," he said. "What the heck did we do this for anyway? Why did we go to space? Is it so we can hit the Soviets with nukes easier? Or are we trying, as Carl Sagan would say, to understand our connection to the cosmos?"
Morris said that this search for meaning repeats itself throughout history, pointing to literature from the 19th century—when authors were picking up on uniform existential experiences had by people out at sea or on the wide-open frontier—that attempted to understand the largeness and chaos of nature, the sublime.
"So for Herman Melville, Moby Dick, there's this experience of, you know, this whale kind of represents not understanding what the heck's going on," Morris said. "This is this huge sort of nature. Nature can't quite be understood or confronted but one looks at it with awe."
Finally, there's the case of James Irwin, the eighth man on the Moon, who perhaps departed from his science background most radically. There, on the crags of the lunar surface, Irwin went full-bore religious. He described looking over his shoulder while on the Moon, believing that Jesus himself was there too, watching him.
Shortly after returning to Earth, Irwin left the space program and launched an evangelical organization in Colorado. Before his death in 1991, Irwin traveled twice to Turkey in search of Noah's Ark.
"It's easier to walk on the Moon," Irwin said. "I've done all I possibly can, but the ark continues to elude us."