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Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Not only has Edgar Mitchell walked on the moon, he's thrown an improvised javelin, which still remains on the lunar surface.
He's one of only 12 men in history - and eight that are still living - who set foot on the moon during the Apollo space flights conducted by NASA from 1968 to 1972.
This weekend, Mitchell will land in Southwest Virginia on behalf of the Science Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke and the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology at Virginia Tech. The 82-year-old astronaut will give presentations Friday at the Lyric Theatre and at Virginia Tech's Fralin Life Science Institute. Saturday, he'll speak and hold a book signing at the science museum.
"The opportunity to shake hands with one of these guys is only getting rarer," said Science Museum executive director Jim Rollings . He and Mitchell have been friends since Rollings headed the South Florida Science Museum in West Palm Beach, where Mitchell lives.
Mitchell will also give a talk at a dinner Friday evening that will serve as the official launch of the science museum's $575,000 campaign to renovate its planetarium. The dinner itself isn't a fundraiser, however - the $90 tickets are meant to offset costs associated with Mitchell's visit. Last week, Rollings flew to Houston to personally pick up a moon rock that will be on display until Nov. 9.
Born in Texas, Mitchell grew up in Roswell, N.M., and first flew at age 13 - he was paid in flight time for helping to refuel, park and wash planes at the airport near his father's ranch. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and had earned test pilot credentials when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957.
When the American astronaut program began, he shaped his career toward becoming part of it, earning a doctor of science in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a thesis about an electric propulsion system for travel to Mars.
He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1970 for his efforts on the ground to help the astronauts on the malfunctioning Apollo 13 mission return safely home from space. His career reached its culmination in February 1971, when he and Apollo 14 mission commander Alan Shepard spent more than nine hours on the moon's surface collecting samples.
Controversially (though curiously appropriate for a man from Roswell), Mitchell isn't shy about voicing his belief that extra terrestrials have been among us. After he returned from the moon, he founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a California organization devoted to exploring psychic phenomena and the role of consciousness in the cosmos. His assertions have often been criticized by skeptics.
Much less controversially, he's a member of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which has given out a total of $8 million in $10,000 scholarships over the past two decades to budding young scientists interested in studying space flight.
Last week, Mitchell agreed to answer a few questions via telephone.
What was it like being on the moon?
What more can an explorer want? ... To go where humans haven't been, look around, gather data, come back and tell the people. That's what explorers do.
I guess the great surprise that many of us had was the fact that the back side looks quite different from the front side because of the fact that the same side of the moon faces the Earth at all times, and the lava flows from the early period came out on the front side and filled the craters and the ancients thought those were oceans. They called them "maria." What they are is really craters filled with black material ... pummeled up to talcum powder fineness. On the back side it's more like sand. Only once we got there and got pictures did we realize that was the case.
Did you guys do anything like set up a flag or play golf?
Every mission had a flag on a pole, with a little metal rod at the top to make it look like it's flying all the time. All crews set those up.
My partner, Alan Shepard, hit a golf ball, and I threw a javelin after his golf ball. Outthrew him by about four inches.
Were you able to see the Earth from where you were?
In order to really see it, you had to hang onto ... the leg of the spacecraft and lean way back because it was directly overhead ... and when you were standing on the surface in the pressure suit you couldn't look directly overhead.
How stressful was the trip up?
We had practiced and practiced and practiced in simulators, and ... simulated the surface activity at Cape Kennedy, so ... the only thing that was different was that we were doing it en route to the moon and on the moon, rather than doing it here on Earth.
What are your thoughts on the space program today?
One of my major concerns is that our global civilizations is not on a sustainable path. ... Population explosion is out of control. Use of non-renewable resources is out of control. We as a species are going to have to make a strong resolution to create a substainable civilization or we're not going to be around here for another century. ... And in due course, as we all know, our star has a finite lifetime, and so sooner or later, whether we're sustainable or not, we're going to have to be off this planet, and that means using technology to do so ... in my opinion, since I work on it all the time, discovering how to use zero-point energy, which is the basic energy of the universe.
Your research goes into a number of territories that are regarded with skepticism in some circles.
That's what's fun about it. We're breaking down barriers and finding things. That's what science is all about: new discovery. ... There's nothing that we have done or have demonstrated that doesn't have good science behind it. Skeptics be damned.
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