‘We are stardust’

Edgar Mitchell walks on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971.
Courtesy of NASA

Ellen Mahoney, Boulder-based journalist and co-author of the young adult nonfiction book Earthrise: My adventures as an Apollo 14 Astronaut, can’t remember a time when she didn’t stare up at the stars and wonder about the big, humbling questions of life.

“Who I am? Why am I here? What is that we’re all a part of? Where are we going? That’s always who I’ve been, and that was who Edgar was, too,” Mahoney says.

She’s referring to her co-author, the late Edgar Mitchell, the moon-walking, alien-hunting, psychically inclined astronaut.

As a journalist, Mahoney focuses on the cold, hard facts of Mitchell’s life. But from these, she hopes to construct a more encompassing narrative, one that can lift our thoughts from scientific infrastructures to consider the mysteries of the universe with equal fervor.

Mahoney first met Mitchell decades ago, when living in sunny Palo Alto as a bright-eyed 20-something eager to volunteer at his newly founded Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). The institute was the first home for the emerging, multidisciplinary field Mitchell founded, bringing objective scientific tools and techniques together with subjective inner wisdom in order to study the full range of human experiences. 

IONS was a bold new step into phenomenological studies, not because it hadn’t been done before, but because for the first time it was backed by the mainstream notoriety of Mitchell the aviator, aeronautical engineer and NASA astronaut.

“To me he is an important person to recognize on our planet for all he has accomplished, but more so for his courageous work to help us to question, and to imagine,” Mahoney says.

“He was one of 12 men, out of 7.4 billion on Earth, who went off planet and walked on a different heavenly body.”

Mitchell was a part of NASA’s Apollo 14 mission in 1971, spending more than 30 hours on the moon. And while he was up there, staring into the starry sky, watching the Earth rise above the horizon, he had a transcendent experience that would soon beg him to ask the big questions with a scientific intensity and a boy-like wonder: Who am I? What am I part of?

When he came back to Earth he would answer, “we are stardust,” and so began his explorations into parapsychological phenomenon that would continue to his death in 2016.

It was and still is unusual for figures of scientific prominence to so seriously and publicly explore such woo-woo terrain, and that’s precisely why, decades after first meeting him, Mahoney approached Edgar in hopes of turning his story into a book for children.

“Adolescents are at the age of always questioning,” she says. “They are always curious with an innate openness to the big questions. I hoped Mitchell’s story could help them to ask those questions broadly, in a profound sort of way.”

With a penchant for early education, Mitchell eagerly agreed, and for the better part of a year they held regular Tuesday phone interviews that Mahoney says “were an awful lot like Tuesdays with Morrie.” They didn’t have a friendship exactly, but over time developed a close relationship that allowed their conversations to toe the line between factual storytelling and philosophical hypothesizing.

With each call, Mitchell’s story unfolded, chapter by chapter, as an extraordinary biography that touched on some of humanity’s most historical moments. For Mitchell they were intimate and introduced him to profound considerations of his inner and outer worlds alike.

He told Mahoney about his days as a kid on his family’s Texas ranch, herding hungry cattle during the Great Depression. Almost always covered in a thin layer of Dust Bowl dirt, he learned about man’s survival on a sometimes unforgiving planet.

By the time he was 15, his family had moved to the periphery of Roswell, New Mexico, and he remembers having his first considerations of extraterrestrial life then, in 1947, when he says a UFO plummeted into a nearby cow pasture.

In 1945, he remembers being awoken in the middle of the night by a bright light and a violent shake. In the morning he learned it was the first test of an atomic bomb at the Trinity Site — an early lesson in the power of the stuff of the universe.

He went on, telling Mahoney about his early days as an aviator, about getting his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at MIT and about his nearly catastrophic Apollo 14 mission, which he managed to save with quick thinking and 180 lines of code to become the sixth man to walk on the moon.

As he talked, Mahoney realized even though each of these moments were spectacular in their own right, what was truly remarkable was how they synthesized to prepare Mitchell for his moment of epiphany in space.

“I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but to hear him talk about it was to hear a man describe becoming one with the universe, viscerally,” Mahoney says. “When he got back to Earth, he wanted to figure out what had happened to him up in space and found the word of the samadhi (a state of meditative consciousness) best captured it. He had experienced a higher state of consciousness, he felt at one with the universe, as if every particle of his being was connected.”

On the Bill: Ellen Mahoney: Earthrise. 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 10, Chautauqua Community House, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder.