To Infinity and Beyond: What Science and Spirituality Look Like from Outer Space

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  1. I am convinced that of all the people on the two sides of the great curtain the space pilots are the least likely to hate each other . . . I believe that the tremendous and otherwise not quite explicable public interest in space flight arises from the subconscious realization that it helps to preserve peace. May it continue to do so!

    — Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression

    Present systems for getting from Earth’s surface to low-Earth orbit are so fantastically expensive that merely launching the 1,000 tons or so of spacecraft and equipment a Mars mission would require could be accomplished only by cutting health-care benefits, education spending or other important programs—or by raising taxes. Absent some remarkable discovery, astronauts, geologists and biologists once on Mars could do little more than analyze rocks and feel awestruck beholding the sky of another world.

    —Gregg Easterbrook, “Why We Shouldn’t Go To Mars”

    For Edgar Mitchell, a journey to the moon and back was a family trip.

    And the path home made the biggest impression on him. The Apollo spacecraft was in barbecue mode, a slow rotation, like a backyard rotisserie, designed to make sure the sun didn’t overheat one side of the craft. And for the first time in many days, Mitchell had some time to sit and think, to enjoy some sense of accomplishment and look out the window. The long struggle of learning and training necessary to reach the moon was behind him. Now, the lunar surface was behind him, too.

    Astronauts, like professional athletes, enjoy their greatest, most public accomplishments early in life. Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, was forty years old. At the time, he didn’t know what was next. But just outside his spacecraft window laid the work that would sustain him throughout the rest of his life.

    As the craft rotated, Mitchell’s view shifted. He saw the Earth, the moon, the sun, and a vast field of stars, in a panorama that repeated itself every hour, with the slow roll of his spacecraft. From here, as he looked down on Earth, he could recognize seas and continents. He could identify countries and cities. He knew that his younger brother, in the Air Force, worked somewhere on the small peninsula of Southeast Asia, flying missions in Vietnam. Mitchell had flown missions of his own, in the Korean War. Thinking of this, and staring out his capsule window, he reflected on how violent life on Earth is, despite the planet’s peaceful blue and white appearance. He looked again, shifting his point of focus from the Earth to the inestimable star field of which the Earth is just a part. And then, something happened.

    Mitchell would spend the rest of his life trying to understand the implications. But suddenly, everything he thought he knew seemed grossly wrong.

    He had, many years earlier, set aside the religious views with which he had been raised, considering them the leftover attempts of prescientific people to understand their existence. But the vision of reality that had come to occupy his mind since then, a purely scientific view, was also now shattered by what he saw. The idea that every star, every planet, every object in the cosmos, was separate and distinct had worked just fine for him. The Newtonian model of a predictable, physical universe had, in fact, provided the framework for a science that shot him into space and back. But looking out at the cosmos from space, he did not so much understand a new vision of reality as feel it.

    He felt the Earth, the moon, the sun, and the stars. He felt his own relationship to all these things. He even felt the blackness in between them. The borders of flesh and bone disappeared. He felt the sensational tremors of his own being extending out into space. Forget distinctions between continents and countries. Edgar Mitchell now felt there were no boundaries between our bodies and the celestial bodies. He felt no distinction between himself and the nothing of black space. He suddenly experienced life—with no distinctions at all.

    Our existence, he suddenly believed, is the product of an intelligent evolution—more grand than religion or science has described. This is the source of us. And we remain connected to that source. Mitchell felt this in what he describes as “an ecstasy of unity.”

    In his talks, and in his books, and in the articles written about him, Mitchell usually just speaks of this first epiphany. But when I met with him, at his home in Palm Beach, Florida, he explained that he moved in and out of this state for three days. “I went into that state maybe two or three times an hour,” Mitchell said. “When it continued to happen all the way back, when every time I would look out the window I would be having a repeat of all this, I did wonder, ‘What is happening to me? What the hell is going on here?’”

    When he landed, Mitchell undertook research in philosophy, religion, and science to try and understand what he had experienced. By the time I met him, he was forty years down that road. And in person, he proved as serenely confident as that history might suggest. He lives in a well-kept, ranch-style home in a fairly secluded section of West Palm Beach. His closest neighbors are palm trees and open fields. He was nearing eighty when I met him. And except for a stiff gait, he seemed to be in tremendous shape for someone so close to octogenarian status. He was tall and lean. His grip hurt when he shook my hand.

    He led me into an office, taking great delight in a pair of dogs that gathered at his feet when he sat down. He motioned me to sit across from him, a large tray of sliced-up vegetables and hot tea arranged on a table between us. I was a bit relieved at the warm reception. He had seemed rather wary of me when I first started making arrangements to visit. But as he explained over the course of a couple of days, experience has taught him to be careful.

    He has been ambushed by moon-landing deniers—the small cadre of people who believe the entire Apollo space program was a massive hoax perpetrated on the American taxpayer and the people of the world. There is even a video of a feisty, seventy-something Mitchell ordering a denier out of his house. In the video, as the man bends over to pick up some papers, Mitchell forgets for a moment all about any ecstasies of unity—and knees him in the ass.

    Mitchell is also the target of criticism from the skeptical community, who consider him an astronaut who never really came back to Earth. It is easy to see why. His post-Apollo studies led him into Eastern religious practices, mental telepathy, psychokinesis, meditation, and New Age healing. In the past decade, he also publicly endorsed the idea that extraterrestrials are visiting Earth. (He saw nothing of alien life in his work for NASA, he claimed, but military officials had since assured him of E.T.s’ existence.)

    Mitchell pronounces himself at peace with the skeptical community. He is playing, he says, for far bigger stakes than the whim of the moment. But from an outsider’s perspective, Mitchell is perhaps not well known enough for his longest-running life’s work—his explorations into the extremes of human consciousness.

    During the course of my research, in fact, novelist Dan Brown released The Lost Symbol. Like The Da Vinci Code before it, the book is a potboiler in which the great mysteries of religion are connected by means of a vast conspiracy to the workings of government and the potential downfall of humankind. Brown incorporated research findings from the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in his plot.

    IONS is, quite literally, Mitchell’s brainchild. Mitchell founded IONS in 1973, just two years after he returned from space, as a means of further investigating the insights he received aboard Apollo 14. He chose the word noetic, which comes from the Greek word for “intuitive knowing”—because it captured the full-bodied epiphany he had in space. Knowledge occurred to him in an instant, he felt, and since then he has endeavored to use the means of science and logic to verify what he learned. With this as the organization’s original marching order, IONS has investigated the more controversial corners of consciousness, looking for evidence of the unity Mitchell experienced.

    In his novel, however, Brown writes that they found so much more: “[IONS] work had begun using modern science to answer ancient philosophical questions: Does anyone hear our prayers? Is there life after death? Do humans have souls? Incredibly, [IONS] answered all these questions. . . Scientifically. Conclusively.”

    The truth is, of course, that IONS’s mandate isn’t supernatural; and no one has answered these questions—scientifically, conclusively. Directors at IONS are the first to admit it. Still, the publicity IONS received in the wake of Brown’s book was welcome and overwhelming—including lengthy treatments on the Discovery channel, Dateline, and NPR. Hits at the IONS web site jumped 1,200 percent. Membership rolls and donations spiked. Book sales for IONS’s current, leading lights took off, too. But Mitchell himself received virtually no publicity. He remains involved at IONS. He is listed as chairman emeritus and founder. And staff members there tell me his experience in that Apollo capsule remains foundational for them. But the institute that searches for unity has established a separate existence from the man who brought it into being.

    Mitchell himself seemed fine with that state of affairs when I met him. But he expressed no thought of simply disappearing himself into the cloak of old age, relative anonymity, and death. “A psychic I trust,” he told me, “predicted I will live to be 109 years old.”

    He fixed me, then, with a wry, gentle smile—the prediction seeming, perhaps, a little too good to be true, even to Edgar Mitchell. Maybe another three decades of life even strikes him as an embarrassment of treasure for one man. After all, his story already encompasses a vast swath of American history, reaching all the way from the dust of the Earth to the dust of the moon—and ultimately into the heart of what it means to be human.


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Originally published in Byliner, October 2011