Astronaut Edgar Mitchell, Sixth Man To Walk On The Moon, Dies In Florida At 85

Former U.S. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who became the sixth man to set foot on the Moon, has died. The Texas native died Thursday night, aged 85, at a West Palm Beach, Florida hospice after a brief illness, according to a statement released on behalf of his family by his daughter Kimberly Mitchell.

Mitchell became the sixth person and one of 12 humans to walk on the Moon on Feb. 5, 1971.

Edgar Dean Mitchell was born September 17, 1930, in Hereford, Texas. He spent his childhood on his father's ranch in New Mexico and obtained a degree in industrial management from Carnegie Mellon University in 1952, after his high school education.

He joined the U.S. Navy and trained as a test pilot and scientist. He obtained a degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School in 1961, and a doctorate in astronautics and aeronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in 1964.

He joined NASA in 1966 and was selected for the Apollo program. He piloted the lunar module for the January 31 to February 9, 1971 Apollo 14 mission. And with crew members Alan Shepard -- the first American astronaut in space in 1961 -- and Stuart Roosa, he helped NASA achieve the third successful landing on the Moon.

The crew had a scare as they prepared to land on the Moon. A malfunction triggered an abort signal but they were able to trace the problem. A second glitch occurred during landing when the radar failed momentarily.

Mitchell landed on the Moon with Shepard on February 5, 1971. The two men spent more than 30 hours on the Moon and nine hours performing extravehicular activities (EVAs), during which they collected about 100 pounds of lunar samples.

Shepard achieved the distinction of the first golfer on the Moon and Mitchell the first "javelin" thrower when he hurled a metal rod.

The success of the Apollo 14 mission followed the nearly disastrous failure of the Apollo 13 mission.The subsequent success of the Apollo 14 mission helped to restore confidence in the Apollo program.

Edgar Mitchell former NASA astronaut
Edgar Mitchell, 2007 (Photo By Henny Ray Abrams/AP)

"Had we blown it, had it failed for whatever reason, that would probably have been the end of the Apollo program right there," Mitchell said years after the mission.

The Associated Press (AP) notes that Mitchell's death coincides with the 45th anniversary of the historic Apollo 14 mission.

He claimed to have had an "epiphany" during the Apollo mission and conducted a telepathy experiment during the journey back to Earth.

In an autobiography published in 1996, he wrote, "What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness. It occurred to me that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft itself were manufactured long ago in the furnace of one of the ancient stars that burned in the heavens about me."

According to the AP, he had admitted an interest in psychic phenomena and his conviction that humans are not the only intelligent life in the universe before his trip to the Moon.

Astronaut Edgar Mitchell
Astronaut Edgar Mitchell studies a map on the Moon (Image via NASA Alan Shepard/Public Domain/Wikimedia]

Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, later suggested in his autobiography that Mitchell may have been dropped from the Apollo mission, despite his skill and competence, because NASA administrators were uncomfortable about his interest in metaphysical phenomena.

He had gained notoriety among his colleagues when he declared his Apollo 14 mission telepathy experiment a success.

He left NASA in 1972, and established the Institute of Noetic Sciences in January 1973. The non-profit organization, according to Mitchell, was devoted to pursuit of "individual and collective transformation through consciousness research."

He devoted himself to the study of mind and consciousness metaphysical phenomena, and declared publicly his belief in extraterrestrial life and intelligence. He later claimed he believed that aliens may have visited Earth and that the U.S. government may have covered up evidence that aliens have visited Earth.

He was involved in a legal dispute with NASA in 2011 over his decision to auction a camera he brought home as a souvenir from the Apollo 14 mission. But after NASA sued to stop him from auctioning the camera he donated it to National Air and Space Museum.

According to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Mitchell is "one of the pioneers in space exploration on whose shoulders we now stand."

He is survived by five children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

"He was incredibly generous with his heart and his brain, making each of us a better person because we knew him and were shaped by him. The lessons of hard work, integrity, curiosity, as well as a deep understanding that all things are possible, is embedded in each of us," his daughter, Kimberly Mitchell, said.

[Image via NASA/Wikimedia Commons]