It was sad to hear of the death of former US astronaut Edgar Mitchell last week. In the days when the Apollo on-board computers didn’t have the processing power of even a modern pocket calculator, it took more than just nerve and bravery to head out into space with the goal of landing on the Moon and returning safely to Earth. Mitchell was a true pioneer, being only the sixth human being to set foot on our nearest neighbour in space, and I think it is also accurate and true to describe him, along with others, as a hero.
His achievements didn’t end there, however. Mitchell had academic awards including a Doctor of Science degree from MIT (as well as similar honorary awards from other universities); The Presidential Medal of Freedom; other awards from institutions around the world. The recognition he gained for his achievements and the records he broke is truly amazing, and well-deserved.
Mitchell was, of course, human, and therefore like everyone else; he could, and did, let his emotions override his logic. He made no secret of the awe he felt when he faced the vastness of space and perhaps thought deeply about the smallness of his home planet within it. But that might have been a tipping point. He later went on to pursue his beliefs in paranormal matters and especially the idea that aliens are here, their existence being covered up by a government conspiracy.
Unfortunately, Edgar Mitchell became a focal point for various cranks, conspiracy theorists and paranormal believers in general. “Aliens? Of course they’re here. Edgar Mitchell says so.” That’s the fallacy of the appeal to authority, by the way – assuming the truth of a claim based on who makes the claim rather than asking for evidence. Even Mitchell himself did not claim (as far as I can find out) that he had seen aliens or their alleged spacecraft personally, and said that his information was from others. In other words, his own information was second-hand and uncorroborated, but even worse, his followers accepted what he said about the subject only on the basis of who he was rather than any evidence that he could offer.
In a similar way, Mitchell claimed he had been cured of kidney cancer by a “remote healer,” again without corroborating evidence (he did not have a biopsy done). His alleged illness was never formally diagnosed, although he thought he had the symptoms and therefore the disease. His reasoning was wrong, because it takes a properly qualified doctor to make a diagnosis. Someone who develops a persistent cough has one of the symptoms of lung cancer, for example, but if it clears up after taking some vitamins it does not mean that a cancer was there or that the vitamins did anything. But when someone with Mitchell’s status makes a similar claim, a lot of people take notice and believe it. He certainly did.
In the early days of space exploration many astronauts like Edgar Mitchell became household names, although as time goes on and travel into space becomes almost routine, few modern astronauts gain the same kind of fame. Mitchell’s fame at the time was well deserved for his achievements, but it is a pity that his further fame came about because of his off-target beliefs about the paranormal, UFOs and all the rest of it. I suppose he genuinely believed the unsupportable claims he made, but his legacy is not as heroic as it could have been. Rather than helping to create a new generation of scientific and critical thinkers, he gave that away in favour of convincing uncritical thinkers that belief is better than – or even trumps – testable evidence.
Edgar Mitchell is one of the people I wish I could have met in person. I am old enough to remember the very early days of the space race (including the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin), and I remember following, in particular, the race to the Moon. I still remember the ups and downs, and the drama, of Apollo 13 (the actual event, not the film, by the way). Mitchell was part of that whole adventure to free mankind from the confines of this puny little speck of a pale blue dot that exists somewhere within the immensity of the universe – a true pioneer, pathfinder and hero. I just wish he had stayed with reality in his later years.