Farewell to the ‘mystical astronaut’: Edgar Mitchell 1930-2016

Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon who became a celebrity believer in the UFO myth, has died aged 85.

Edgar Mitchell, NASA astronaut and the sixth man to walk on the moon (credit: Wikipedia)

Edgar Mitchell, NASA astronaut and the sixth man to walk on the moon (credit: Wikipedia)

The Guardian newspaper once described the retired NASA astronaut as being an unlikely name on the list of those who believe alien life forms have visited Earth and the facts are being concealed by a massive government cover-up.

But was it fair to compare him to the ‘cranks, paranoid delusionals and editors of the Daily Star (and sometimes all three)’ the paper said were more typical UFO believers?

Dr Edgar Mitchell, had a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering and a Doctor of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Unlike most of us, he was one of the few human beings who has actually left the Earth’s orbit and walked on another celestial body. For two days in February 1971 Mitchell became the sixth human being to walk on the surface of the moon.

As lunar module pilot for the Apollo 14 mission, the former US Navy pilot spent a total of 216 hours and 42 minutes in space. Alongside Alan Shepard, he held the record for the longest moon walk in history, spending nine hours working on the lunar surface.

But in retirement, Mitchell’s achievements as an astronaut were overshadowed by a series of statements he made to the Press about UFOs and aliens. And as the popularity of the UFO and Roswell myths grew he was adopted by the UFO Disclosure movement as one of their chief celebrity supporters.

Most recently, in August 2014, he was quoted by the Daily Mirror as claiming that peace-loving aliens had intervened during the Cold War to prevent an atomic exchange between Russia and the United States. He later retracted this claim, telling The Huffington Post’s Lee Speigel that ‘none of those quotes originated from me’.

Daily Mirror headline from August 2014. Mitchell later denied the quotes came from him

Daily Mirror headline from August 2014. Mitchell later denied the quotes came from him

Yet on a visit to the UK during the summer of 2008 Mitchell was quizzed about UFOs during an interview for the Birmingham-based radio station Kerrang!  Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun was having fun with UFO stories during the  summer ‘silly season’, so aliens were very much on the agenda.

So when interviewer Nick Margerrison dropped a throwaway question ‘did he believe in life on other planets’ he appeared taken aback by the answer he received.

‘Oh yes,’ Mitchell replied. ‘There’s not much question at all that there is life throughout the universe’.

Not only was the astronaut ‘totally sure’ we were not alone, he said he was ‘privileged to be in on the fact that we have been visited on this planet…the UFO phenomenon is real although it’s been covered up by governments for quite a long time’.

If this wasn’t definitive enough Mitchell said he was confident the Roswell UFO crash was also ‘real’ and its occupants were harmless ‘little people that look strange to us’. He claimed ‘a number of other contacts have been real and on-going’, adding ‘it’s all been well covered up by all of our governments for the last sixty years or so’.

Mitchell’s comments were immediately seized upon by the news media who obtained a terse response from his former employers, NASA. They said it did not ‘track UFOs’ and was not involved ‘in any sort of cover-up about alien life on this planet or anywhere in the universe’.

Trying hard not to imply former astronaut was deluded, NASA added: ‘Dr Mitchell is a great American, but we do not share his opinions on this issue’.

And when the Britain’s Ministry of Defence opened its tenth tranche of UFO files at The National Archives in 2013, they revealed how conspiracy buff Richard D. Hall had written to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and George W. Bush, to ask if they had taken any steps to investigate Mitchell’s claims.

Hall wanted to know if Brown believed the British people had ‘the right to know if our world had been contacted by alien civilisations’.

Hall’s letter was passed to the MoD who responded with their standard line. Their interest in UFOs was restricted to their ‘defence significance’. While they did not investigate every comment made about UFOs in the media they had begun a programme to release 160 of their files on the subject.

Other than what had appeared in the media, they had ‘no knowledge’ of the substance of Mitchell’s claims.  Hall found this difficult to believe:

‘Either they already know and don’t want to tell us, or they are mind bogglingly naïve and do not want to find out’.

But if UFOs really had landed and the US government had possession of alien cadavers since 1947, was it really conceivable that its closest ally, Britain, would be kept in complete ignorance of this fact?

More to the point, how much credence should we give to Mitchell’s views?

A little fact-checking reveals that, of the 12 men who walked on the moon, he is the only astronaut to express belief in UFOs and extra-terrestrial life.

Since the 1970s he has  been known as the ‘mystical astronaut’. During the voyage to the moon he conducted a private ESP experiment in which he tried to transmit information to participants on Earth.

On his return he underwent a mystical experience, an epiphany or feeling of oneness with the universe. Leaving NASA he founded a new age organisation called the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), that supported research into a range of paranormal phenomena.

On this basis Mitchell is hardly an unlikely convert to the UFO myth and, more accurately, he fits the profile of someone more likely to believe in aliens. He grew up in town close to Roswell, New Mexico, and absorbed stories from ‘old timers’ who hard heard stories about the crash of a flying saucer in 1947.

Quizzed by journalist Andrew Smith for his 2005 book Moondust, Mitchell admitted he had no ‘personal experience’ with UFOs. But he said his confidence in the reliability of claims about a cover-up of the subject had grown as he got older.

Pressed for specifics of what he knew or thinks he knows about UFOs, the astronaut revealed his sources were all second hand: ‘I’ve talked with many of the people in the system and I’ve observed and kept up with the literature…’

By ‘the literature’, he meant the UFO literature: the books, magazines, TV programmes and documentaries produced by other believers.

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Ed Mitchell, in retirement, became a celebrity believer feted by the UFO industry (credit: The Guardian)

In a more recent interview, published in 2014, Mitchell admitted that his statements about a worldwide cover-up were not based – as many would prefer to believe – on facts but was ‘just speculation on my part’.

The sixth man on the moon is not, of course, the only high profile military figure to adopt esoteric beliefs in retirement. One of the RAF’s finest, Lord Hugh Dowding, mastermind of the Britain’s victory over the Luftwaffe in 1940, was a spiritualist who believed in fairies and flying saucers.

For some, celebrity endorsement of popular legends and myths is sufficient proof of their reality. Mitchell was an exemplar of the ‘credible witness’, someone people tend to believe because of their perceived social status, qualifications, life experiences or other special skills or properties.

But as Professor Gareth Williams said, in his book A Monstrous Commotion (2015), of celebrities who have bought into the Loch Ness Monster myth:

“Being a credible witness has nothing to do with intelligence, social standing or occupation….witnesses may look impressive because they are lords, ladies, counts, commanders, MPs, doctors, engineers or even a Nobel-Prize winner, but titles and qualifications are irrelevant when deciding whether to take them seriously or not.”

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