Friday 9 December 2016

Obituary: Edgar Mitchell, Astronaut

Born: September 17, 1930; died: February 4, 2016

Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30

Space man: Edgar Mitchell, pictured at a premiere in 2007, was the sixth man to walk on the Moon
Space man: Edgar Mitchell, pictured at a premiere in 2007, was the sixth man to walk on the Moon
A Nasa picture of the Apollo 14 astronaut.

Edgar Mitchell, who has died aged 85, was the sixth man to walk on the Moon, a feat that has still only been accomplished by 11 other humans.

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Apollo 14 blasted off from Cape Kennedy on January 31, 1971. The crew consisted of Colonel Stuart Roosa, Mitchell - a commander in the US Navy - and Commander Alan Shepard, who in 1961 had been the first American into space, soon after Yuri Gagarin's pioneering flight.

On the launch pad on that occasion, Shepard had reflected that each part of his craft had been built by the lowest bidder. The 1971 mission was the first since the near-fatal accident to Apollo 13 the previous year.

All went well, however, until it neared the Moon, when a faulty switch began to tell the main computer to abort the landing. Frantically inputting a software fix via his keyboard, Mitchell was able to correct the problem with seconds to spare.

With Roosa staying in orbit, Mitchell and Shepard then had to operate a circuit breaker when the radar vital to the descent of their lunar module Antares began to play up. As it was, they made a perfect touchdown on February 5. The previous two missions to have landed had concentrated on the effects of space travel on the astronauts, so Shepard and Mitchell were instead chiefly instructed to study the Moon itself.

In what proved to be the longest stay on its surface, of nine hours, they also made the two lengthiest moonwalks, retrieving 94lbs of rocks which they hauled in a cart. Famously, Shepard hit two golf balls, which he claimed flew "miles and miles", while Mitchell threw a javelin after them, improvised from a staff.

He also took a celebrated photograph of Shepard raising the American flag. The trio all returned safely to Earth on February 9, splashing down in the South Pacific.

Edgar Dean Mitchell was born on September 17, 1930, and grew up on a cattle ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. He made his first flight when he was four after a barnstorming pilot landed in a field and asked his parents for petrol. At 13 he was washing aircraft in return for flying lessons, and got his licence at 16.

After taking a degree in industrial management - he later studied for a doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT - Mitchell joined the US Navy in 1953. He flew from carriers during the Korean War and was on active service when in 1957 he heard news of the Soviets' launch of Sputnik, the first satellite.

Realising that manned space flight would follow, he began to seek opportunities to become involved in exploring the final frontier. In 1965, he graduated in first place from the Aerospace Research Pilot School and was assigned to the Apollo programme.

Mitchell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1970 for his part in the rescue of Apollo 13's crew. After mission control at Houston was told that it "had a problem", he flew the simulator which showed it was possible to manoeuvre the conjoined lunar and command modules.

His voyage to the Moon transformed Mitchell's life. He found the accompanying celebrity, which impacted on his personal relationships, "a pain in the ass". Yet the experience of seeing the world from space had afforded him, literally, a new perspective on existence.

During re-entry, he was overwhelmed by a feeling of being at one with the universe.

"It was the recognition,"' he told the Daily Telegraph's Mick Brown in 2007, "that the molecules in my body, and the molecules in the body of the spacecraft and in my partners had been prototyped or maybe even manufactured in some ancient generation of stars. "This suddenly became damn personal. It wasn't intellectual - it was visceral. And it was accompanied by this sense of… wow!" This prompted, he said later, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world. "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 had long had an interest in the workings of the subconscious and during the return journey secretly carried out experiments to see if recipients on Earth picked the same shapes that he was thinking about; apparently one in four did. After leaving Nasa in 1972, he opened a business consultancy and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, devoted to exploring the power of the mind. He later expressed his belief that aliens had visited Earth, telling Kerrang Radio in 2008 that governments had covered up the truth.

His three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by the two daughters from his first marriage and the son and two daughters he adopted from the second. His son by his third marriage pre-deceased him.

© Daily Telegraph

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