Forty-five years to the week since he arrived in lunar orbit and subsequently became one of only 12 humans ever to leave his footprints in the dust of another world, Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell has died, aged 85. According to the Palm Beach Post, Mitchell—who accompanied Commander Al Shepard down to the Moon’s surface and performed two EVAs to explore the Fra Mauro foothills, a landing site previously denied to the crew of Apollo 13—passed away in West Palm Beach, Fla., at about 10 p.m. Thursday (4 February), whilst in local hospice care. The news was broken by his daughter, former West Palm Beach City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell. Following the death of Neil Armstrong, back in August 2012, Mitchell’s passing leaves only seven remaining Moonwalkers alive.
The softly-spoken Edgar Dean Mitchell was one of the few pilot-astronauts of his era to possess a doctorate. Quiet, studious and nicknamed “The Brain,” he was born in Hereford, Texas, on 17 September 1930. His father was a rancher, his mother a fundamentalist Baptist. As a boy, Mitchell was active within the Scout movement and attained its second-highest rank, that of Life Scout. Divided in his opinions between the pragmatism of his father and the profound religious conviction of his mother, by his high school years Mitchell concluded that the story of the Creation was allegorical and not literally true.
For a career path, he chose mathematics and engineering and earned a degree in industrial management from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1952, before joining the Navy and completing his basic training at San Diego Recruit Depot. In May of the following year, Mitchell completed instruction at the Officers Candidate School in Newport, R.I., and was commissioned an Ensign, before heading into flight training. He graduated at Hutchinson, Kan., in July 1954, and was detailed to Patrol Squadron 29 in Okinawa. Mitchell later flew the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior from the aircraft carriers USS Ticonderoga—which would later retrieve the Apollo 17 Command Module (CM) from the Pacific Ocean—and USS Bon Homme Richard, whilst part of Heavy Attack Squadron Two. By the end of the decade, he was serving as a research pilot with Air Development Squadron Five.
During this period of active-duty service, Mitchell also pursued an academic career. He earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1961 and enrolled for his doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. His DSc thesis, which he completed in 1964 and which is today enshrined in the Astronaut Hall of Fame, focused upon the design of space vehicle guidance systems and interplanetary low-thrust navigation. “There were programs set up in the late ’50s,” he told the NASA Oral History Project in a September 1997 interview. “Once we had launched the space era, it was realized [that] we didn’t have any academic career path at the PhD level having to do with space exploration, so these programs were initiated at MIT, Caltech and Princeton for people who wanted to do that. It was an eclectic program of study: orbital mechanics, star formation, exotic fuels.” Mitchell considered it a privilege to work under the great Charles Stark Draper, the “father of inertial navigation,” whose eponymous laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology counted among its creations the Apollo Guidance Computer.
With two bachelor’s degree and his doctorate under his belt, Mitchell headed the Project Management Division of the Navy Field Office for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) from 1964 through 1965. after which he was assigned to the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., graduating first in his class and serving as an instructor in advanced mathematics and navigation theory. Together with another young Navy officer, Ken Mattingly, he applied to join the MOL Program—which might have seen a classified, man-tended space station, launched in the late 1960s—but both men were rejected. Ordinarily, they could not apply to join NASA’s astronaut corps, but a sympathetic senior officer at Edwards, named Lieutenant-Colonel John Prodan, gave them a chance and submitted their names.
Selected as an astronaut candidate in April 1966—alongside future Moonwalkers Jim Irwin and Charlie Duke—Mitchell spent his opening years at NASA mastering the systems of the spider-like Apollo Lunar Module (LM). One of Mitchell’s contemporaries was Stu Roosa, with whom he would later fly aboard Apollo 14. Roosa later opined that Mitchell’s wizardry with the LM systems was so great that he was able to take some of the load from Commander Al Shepard, enabling the latter to redouble his own energies toward piloting them to a safe landing on the Moon.
Mitchell’s request to concentrate on the LM offered him a chance to reach the Moon, but his own ambitions ranged further afield, to Mars. “I wrote my thesis … by a navigational program that would go to Mars with low-thrust engines,” he recalled later, “and there was no reason why Mars, in its nearest conjunction after that period that we couldn’t have launched a mission to Mars in 1982. If we’d continued the progression and interest and putting the funds into it that we did in the ’60s, had we made a similar commitment to going to Mars during that period, we could have done so.”
By the spring of 1969, Mitchell was serving as backup Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) for Apollo 10—teamed with Commander Gordo Cooper and Command Module Pilot (CMP) Donn Eisele—and might have expected, under the crew-rotation system in place at the time, to have gone on to fly aboard Apollo 13 in early 1970. This would have made Mitchell the first of his astronaut class to actually reach space. However, it was not to be. Cooper and Eisele were subsequently dropped from future crew assignments and, although Mitchell was initially teamed with Shepard and Roosa for Apollo 13, more ill-fortune was headed their way. Since both Michell and Roosa were “rookie” astronauts, and Shepard had not flown in space for almost a full decade, it was decided to switch their crew with that of the more experienced Apollo 14 crew. Commander Jim Lovell was joined by Ken Mattingly and Fred Haise, both of whom had been selected in Mitchell’s class. “We were the dearest of friends,” Mitchell told the NASA oral historian of his relationship with Mattingly and Haise, “but we were in continuous personal competition. By being assigned on Apollo 10 and then going to ’13, it looked like I would get to fly first. I was the ‘top dog’. And then we switched.”
As circumstances transpired, the ill-fated mission of Apollo 13 in April 1970 caused Mitchell to lose out on his personal goal of becoming the first of his class to reach space, but he also drew the unexpected plum of flying on Apollo 14 and becoming the first of his class to actually reach the surface of the Moon. AmericaSpace will run a series of history articles this weekend, and next, to trace the story of Apollo 14, which—by sad coincidence—happened to arrive in lunar orbit exactly 45 years to the week before Mitchell’s passing. And as we will explore in our dedicated Apollo 14 feature, Mitchell’s participation in Apollo 14 not only made him the sixth man to set foot on the Moon, but also his quick-thinking and knowledge of LM systems allowed him to play a key role in bringing himself and Shepard safely onto the surface. That surface, in Mitchell’s own words, was “the most stark and desolate-looking piece of country I’ve ever seen.”
All told, Mitchell would spend a little more than nine days in space on his one and only mission, including 33 hours on the Moon and a little over nine hours walking on the surface of another world. Returning to Earth, and with the end of the Moon program approaching fast, Mitchell accepted a “dead-end” assignment as backup LMP for Apollo 16, joining Commander Fred Haise and his old Apollo 14 crewmate Stu Roosa. After watching Apollo 16 prime crewmen John Young, Ken Mattingly, and Charlie Duke head to the Moon in April 1972, Mitchell retired from NASA and the Navy—having reached the rank of Captain—later that year. Shortly afterwards, he founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, dedicated to sponsor reserarch in the nature of consciousness, and he also co-founded the Association of Space Explorers. In his later life, he has received four honorary doctorates, a range of military and national service medals, was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1995, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Mitchell leaves three children, three stepchildren, and nine grandchildren, to whom AmericaSpace extends its sincere condolences.