Only 12 humans have ever set foot on a celestial body other than Earth. They were the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon between 1969 and 1972, and they were all superlative in their own way. Neil Armstrong was the first to set foot on the moon’s surface. Eugene Cernan was the last to leave it. Alan Shepard was the oldest. Edgar Mitchell, who died earlier this year at age 86, was often regarded as the oddest.
Mitchell was the sixth human to walk on the moon and the last surviving crew member from Apollo 14. He was very good at his job: he saved the Apollo 14 mission by manually reprogramming a computer minutes before the lunar lander was scheduled to descend to the moon’s surface. Once there, he helped gather a trove of lunar material, deployed numerous scientific experiments and, in tandem with mission commander Alan Shepherd, ventured further afield than any moonwalker to date.
But as he later told it, the defining moment of the mission — of his life, really — occurred on the trip back to Earth, when he didn’t have much to do. He spent a lot of time staring out the window at the thousands of stars shining brightly in the blackness of space, some of their light billions of years old, dating back to the big bang that created the universe. Suddenly, he found his scientific training and humanity coalescing in a moment of profound revelation: the molecules that made up the cosmos sowed the molecules that made up him and every other thing. He was part of the infinite universe, and the infinite universe was part of him. This “ecstasy of unity” left him convinced that the universe is “intelligent, loving, harmonious.”
The Ed Mitchell who emerged from the spacecraft after splashdown was not the same person who had blasted off from Cape Kennedy 216 hours earlier. He returned home with radical new perspectives on Earth, its place in the wider firmament and the flaws of the mortal creatures who inhabit it. “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,” he told People magazine in 1974. “From out there on the moon, international politics look 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.’”
Mitchell delved deeper and deeper into the non-rational after he retired from NASA in 1974. He co-founded an institute for parapsychological and consciousness research that operates to this day. He believed in psychic healing, was a leading light in the UFO subculture and astonished interviewers with claims that extraterrestrials had intervened in earthly conflicts. On more than one occasion, NASA had to distance itself from its former employee. The more peculiar Mitchell’s declarations, the more the media snickered.
The mythology of The Right Stuff demanded that astronauts be superhuman to the point of not being human at all — clinical, imperturbable, almost robotic. Mitchell’s sin was to go on the most extraordinary journey a human can take and come back dramatically transformed by it. Isn’t that precisely what should have happened? I defy any normal human being to brush up against infinity and not be left a little loopy by the experience. In this respect, the oddest moonwalker may have been the most perfect moonwalker. I hope history will forgive Edgar Mitchell his post-Apollo eccentricities and come to view him more like a 20th-century prophet — the man rode to the moon with icewater in his veins and returned to Earth with wonder in his soul.