Recalling Dr. Edgar Mitchell

24 02 2016

 

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We recently lost one of humanity’s pioneers – one of twelve to step on another world and a man who made a distinct impact on me, though in an unexpected way.

Famous for his belief in extraterrestrial life and dabbling in the science of consciousness and extrasensory perception, he is most widely known for planting boot-prints on the Moon’s Fra Mauro Highlands during the Apollo 14 mission: his name was Dr. Edgar Mitchell.

A memorial was held today in his honor in Florida, but I won’t presume here to tread on the numerous articles detailing the many successes and fascinating aspects of his life.  Instead, I’d like to share a story that only I have – the brief tale of how, during a few quiet minutes, he kindly suffered my enthusiastic curiosity and changed my view of planetary exploration forever.

Boots on the Ground

It is a warm, spring afternoon in 2012, and the setting is the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum in Titusville, Florida.  Shortly after an interview with Dr. Mitchell held there that I participated in as part of a National Geographic Channel project, I find myself parked in a museum corridor with the affable astronaut while camera equipment is being packed up.

We have a couple of minutes to kill, and after pleasantries (and revealing my own astronaut aspirations, as I’m sure many who meet him do), I decide to make our remaining seconds of polite conversation count.  It’s also at this moment that the Director of Photography for the program is inspired to snap a photo:

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Loitering with Apollo 14 astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell in the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum. (Image credit: Dave West)

Mercifully, I steer clear of the, “What advice would you have for an aspiring astronaut?” spectrum of questions.  (This is an explorer who’d ventured off-world during humanity’s lone period of manned lunar exploration, after all; he has much more valuable insight than opining on what looks good on a resume to a NASA review panel.)

Knowing that most of the details of the Apollo Program’s exploits have been well-captured in books and articles written during nearly a half-century of analysis and reflection, I aim to drill in on a single question I hadn’t yet heard an answer to.  A human question.

I simply ask: “So, what did it feel like to step into the lunar regolith?  I mean, what did it really feel like?  What was the sensation underfoot?”

His answer surprises me, (which, as a lifelong space obsessee, itself surprises me).  I thought I’d envisioned any of his possible answers, and I was wrong.

Dr. Mitchell cocks his head as he takes my meaning.  Then, he grins and thinks for a moment, (almost as if no one had asked him the question before), before replying:

“Honestly, I don’t really know.  The EVA suit was so rigid, we had such a tight timeline, I was so busy focusing on the mission objectives, and you’ve always got somebody chattering in your ear.” 

He shrugs and adds:

“By the time I’d have had time to think about something like that, the EVA was over and I was back in the lunar module.”

For a few moments, I’m flabbergasted.  “I don’t know” was the one answer I wasn’t really prepared for.  My mouth opens involuntarily, and I consider myself fortunate that I will it shut before I can blurt out, “What do you mean you don’t know?”

I mean, if he doesn’t know what it felt like to step on the Moon, who could?

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Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell checking a map while on the lunar surface. (Credit: NASA)

The Reality of Exploration

Dr. Mitchell’s eyes twinkle slightly, almost as though he suspects the answer would catch me off-guard.  And then, several thoughts hit me in succession:

  • What an injustice that these explorers didn’t even have time to mentally record the sensation of their exploration!
  • But, wait – isn’t tactile information like that important?  Why wasn’t that made a priority?  An objective, even?
  • Doesn’t a sensory awareness of the surface beneath an astronaut relate directly to the ultimate utility an EVA suit on the Moon and the human factors of exploring beyond?
  • Don’t we need to know these things before we consider designing new suits and mission timelines for going back to the Moon and Mars?
  • Wait, did he just let slip a subtle indictment of micromanagement on the Moon?

But, shortly thereafter, the practicality sinks in.  Compared with larger, broader, more fundamental mission objectives, (e.g., survival, navigation, and basic science), smaller details like these were likely to be the first triaged right off of the priority list.  Especially considering that Apollo 14 was an “H-type” mission, which meant only a two-day stay on the Moon and only two EVAs,  they simply didn’t have the luxury of time.

Before I can continue the conversation, we’re swept away with a caravan to another location, and I don’t have another opportunity to pick up the discussion before we part ways for good.

In retrospect, the brief exchange forever changed the way I would view planetary exploration.  I consider it a true dose of lunar reality sans the romance.

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Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell in the distance with the Lunar Portable Magnetometer experiment during EVA 2.

Lessons for Future Explorers

From this exchange, I was left with an indelible impression that every moment spent by future planetary astronauts on another world will be heavily metered and micromanaged.  Excursions will be rehearsed ad nauseam, and as a result, explorers in the thick of the real deal won’t be afforded much time to think about apparently trivial details like what it actually feels like to step on another world.

By all reckoning, it probably would feel much like another rehearsal.

But these details, even apparently small, do matter.  Things like suit fit, function, and feedback under different environmental conditions can have a huge impact on astronaut fatigue, injury, and mission success.  This is to say nothing of secondary geological information, (e.g., this type of regolith scuffs differently than that type), or the more romantic aspects of the sensation of exploration that are necessary for bringing the experience back home to those on Earth in a relatable way.

So, it should say something to us now that after traveling more than five football fields of distance on foot during the course of only two days, Dr. Mitchell couldn’t tell me what it really felt like to press a boot into lunar dirt.

Ultimately, the most unexpected lesson Dr. Mitchell was kind enough to impart was that unless we work to preserve these apparently smaller details of exploration, (as recalled by the limited number of explorers still with us who ventured onto the Moon), and unless we incorporate their implications into future plans, schedules, and designs, the path walked by future astronauts on other worlds will be more difficult than it should or need be.


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