Edgar Mitchell's Strange Voyage
You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. 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.”
—Edgar D. Mitchell
Apollo 14 Astronaut
Like most men who have felt a huge booster rocket light up on the pad beneath them and the beginning vibrations of a launch into space, Ed Mitchell is never far from some reminder of his most astounding hours. The walls of his cramped office in Palo Alto, California, where his esoteric business is the study of parapsychological phenomena, are hung with photographs celebrating the Apollo 14 mission, in which Mitchell was the lunar module pilot and became the sixth man to walk on the surface of the moon. One of the pictures shows the U.S.S. New Orleans, the recovery ship that picked up the Apollo crew in February 1971. As Mitchell pointed out to a visitor, his first name is misspelled “Egar” in the commemorative inscription. In a wry Cockney imitation, Mitchell said of that error, “It keeps me ‘umble.”
Humble or not—and the topic has priority among people who know him—Ed Mitchell has maintained a high public profile. Interest in him has even increased since his flight, a rarity in astronaut fame shared only by John Glenn. The reason for this is twofold: Mitchell had a transcendent personal experience during his moon flight, and he has been proclaiming it ever since—on the lecture circuit, to influential listeners wherever he can collar them, and in a book coming out in June. To an extent that seems almost to contradict his native skepticism and training in hard science, Ed Mitchell has become a man obsessed by the idea that the world can be changed by the right application of human awareness, and he has quite literally made it his business to apply it.
To his determination Mitchell brings great self-confidence, not exactly a new acquisition. He is remembered by some from his pre-moon flight days at NASA as rank-conscious and overbearing. Apparently more mellow now, the president and founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences nonetheless explained his forgivable ignorance about the identity of Pop Star Mick Jagger by saying not long ago, “I’m too busy making history. I don’t have time to read about it.”
Still, there are ample grounds to support his good opinion of himself. At 43, Mitchell has come a head-swelling distance to his present eminence in a field on the frontier of behavioral studies. From a modest start in a Southwest ranching family during the Depression (he used to wash down crop dusters’ airplanes to get free rides), he gained the top academic rank, or very near it, at every school he attended. He holds a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT. Before his retirement from NASA in 1972 (and from the U.S. Navy as a captain) he was generally regarded as one of the brightest and most intellectually adventurous of the astronauts. His credentials as a pilot were most impressively stated by Alan Shepard, the cool and utterly unhumble boss of the Apollo 14 crew. “He’s a great flyer,” said Rear Admiral Shepard, a man frugal in praise of others, “simply outstanding.” And, of course, Mitchell has kicked up moon dust, which puts him in a very special brotherhood. In some substantial way, that experience has profoundly marked the life or outlook of each of the 12 men who have known it. One, Jim Irwin, became an evangelist preacher, and Alan Shepard described his own transformation. “I used to be a rotten s.o.b.,” he has said. “Now I’m just an s.o.b.”
It was Mitchell’s moon visit—or the changes it wrought in him—that led to his current total preoccupation with the frontiers of psychic research and parapsychology, fields in which there is a booming interest but that are still considered only marginally respectable by many scientists. “The experience I had on the flight was akin to a religious experience,” explained Mitchell in a soft, weary voice, the gray hair just beginning to show in his reddish-brown beard. “It was euphoric, one of those rare moments in life when you seemed to be able to reach out and touch the universe, when you had an intuitive flash about the real meaning of truth.”
After between 25 and 30 hours of such mystic perceptions, Mitchell came back to earth determined to do something about the truth he understood so starkly from a lunar distance. The solution, he felt, lay in a sort of planet-wide consciousness-raising, which would be accomplished through the scientific applications of parapsychology (sometimes called psi). It was a field he had been interested in long before the flight, and indeed, without NASA’s knowledge he had set up an experiment in extrasensory perception to be conducted during the mission with four men back on earth. The test involved the men on earth guessing the correct order of certain standard symbols as Mitchell “sent” them from space by telepathy and it was later judged to be a moderate success.
At any rate, in Mitchell’s new resolution, such psi techniques could include ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy and psychokinesis (the use of psychic energy to bring about physical changes, like bending forks with well aimed thinking). All these and more could be employed in the quest for greater realization of the power of the human mind. For this commendable purpose the Institute of Noetic Sciences (Mitchell coined the term “Noetic” from the Greek word for mind) was eventually founded, on a nonprofit basis.
Mitchell claims a membership of 1,300, each paying $25 in annual dues. Obviously, much of his own money is tied up in the institute, but Mitchell will not talk about his funding. He did reveal a big cutback in his staff—from seven to two, not including himself. “We are in the process of reevaluating our entire program,” he said in a drawl recalling his New Mexican boyhood, “to get at those studies that are most viable and to cut off those that are less than productive.”
One project that has been occupying Mitchell is a study at the nearby Stanford Research Institute in conjunction with Uri Geller, the young (26) Israeli psychic. Geller’s results at SRI in psychokinesis and telepathy (causing compass needles to swing and guessing numbers correctly) have got mixed reviews; some scientists think he is a fraud playing palpable parlor tricks. But Mitchell, a look of real anger in his face, insists that Geller’s debunkers have been guilty of selecting their data to support their own skepticism.
For the immediate future, Mitchell wants to set up a study to devise a theory that will scientifically explain various psi phenomena such as clairvoyance and precognition. He is interested in the idea that healing is possible with psi energy. A six-week seminar to be called “Noetics, the Emerging Science of Consciousness,” will start soon at a nearby college. And he hopes to begin a pilot program with businesses in the Palo Alto area to train employees in how to expand the uses of their minds. “We will teach people,” Mitchell said, “to be aware enough to hear not just what a person is saying, but the reason he is saying it and what he really means.”
Though he would not name them or single out any group for criticism, Mitchell is conscious of the far-out claims and techniques of certain groups, such as the practitioners of mind dynamics and the quasi-religion of Scientology. “These people,” Mitchell said, speaking in general, “claim to train better, more aware, sensitive people. And all have in some respects. But with some groups, the dangers from the training are higher than the advantages. We’d like to counteract this by solid testing and tested techniques.”
The former astronaut is firm, too, in his rejection of any real link between his work and the field of the occult. “We are not dealing in the occult,” he said through an annoyed exhalation of cigarette smoke. “What we are talking about is awareness and intuition and enhancing these qualities.”
There is a certain quality of fatigue showing in Mitchell these days. Selling one’s convictions can turn out to be hard work, and Mitchell has had other problems, too. Shortly after his return from space, his wife of 21 years divorced him. He got married again last fall. Mitchell looks forward now to the possibility that he will be able to turn his institute over to some sort of public management, and go into business for himself, perhaps as an industrial consultant in the uses of awareness.
Mitchell remains troubled by his own raw and imperfect understanding of the field of his obsession. “If I really understood my own techniques,” he said, “and could live by them well enough, I could be totally at peace inside and the world could be falling apart all around me and never bother me. But it does.”
Endearing as these unusual signs of frailty may be in Mitchell, he remains a stubborn fellow, not unrelated to the little boy who, his mother remembers, dared to crumble his biscuit on the floor even after she had told him to stop it. And his quarterdeck manner hasn’t completely disappeared. “My wife tells me I am a male chauvinist pig and I have to sort of admit it,” he said recently. “In my office and in my home, I’m not very democratic. I think of myself as a benevolent dictator.”
But it is the mystic in Ed Mitchell who commands his personality. Perhaps, like so many others, he really seeks a way to live forever. He wrote not long ago of the possibility that “death may simply be an alteration in consciousness, a transition for continued life in a nonmaterial form.” Whatever direction he takes, his profoundly moving experience on the moon flight will continue to have its tidal pull on him. “I theorize that there is a spectrum of consciousness available to human beings,” he said to one visitor. “At one end is material consciousness. At the other end is what we call ‘field’ consciousness, where a person is at one with the universe, perceiving the universe. Just by looking at our planet on the way back I saw or felt a field consciousness state. You don’t have to dwell in such states long to accept them as reality.” Ed Mitchell pinned his listener firmly with the strength of his feeling, and finished, “It is not faith, but knowledge.”