During our trip to Alaska, we spent some time with Apollo 14 Astronaut Edgar Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell was invited to speak at the dinner banquet as part of the EIPBN conference, at my husband Frank's request. He is a fascinating person, and it's not every day you get to meet someone who actually walked on the moon.
The reason Dr. Mitchell was asked to speak is that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser. The conference keynote speaker, Dr. Tony Siegman of Stanford, gave a retrospective on the history of the laser in the conference's opening session. Dr. Siegman mentioned that one of the most unique scientific uses of the laser came in the early 1970's, when the Apollo astronauts placed laser retro-reflector arrays on the moon. Because of this, scientists on earth can bounce a laser signal off the reflectors and measure the distance from the Earth to the moon, within a few centimeters of accuracy. As Dr. Siegman got to this dramatic point, he invited Ed Mitchell up on stage with him, as a surprise to the audience.
Dr. Mitchell related to the rapt audience that he actually didn't know much about the experiments that were planned with the lasers, but was under strict orders from NASA not to kick any dirt on the reflectors or he would be in trouble. He showed a picture of one of the reflectors, with his footprints around it, and it looked like he accomplished his mission of keeping it clean. He was told at the time that they would be in use for twenty years or so, so they needed to last. That was in 1971, and the same retro-reflectors are still being used by NASA today, nearly forty years later.
It was Frank's idea to invite Ed Mitchell to speak at the conference. As Conference Chair, Frank wanted to make it a memorable experience for the attendees. As a boy, he admired the Apollo astronauts, and remembered the laser experiments as he grew up and became a laser scientist himself. He diligently researched which of the Apollo Astronauts were available for speaking engagements. Sadly, many of them have passed away. He was overjoyed when Dr. Mitchell agreed to speak. He was thrilled that our son would have the opportunity to meet someone who had actually traveled to the moon.
Our family had the pleasure of spending a little time with Ed Mitchell during our stay in Anchorage, at the official conference functions and by being his unofficial chauffeurs and guides. He is a delightful, charming man, and was gracious in giving autographs and posing for pictures. Alex got to meet him at the airport, and he signed one of Alex's stuffed animals for him, a little bear wearing a space suit that Frank bought at the National Air & Space Museum. He even brought a photo of himself on the moon with him, and signed it "To Alex."
At the banquet, he spoke about the Apollo 14 mission, most of which is well documented in history and science books, in movies, and TV documentaries. The part that interested me most was hearing about the profound personal and spiritual impact going into space had on him, the beauty of the earth from so far above, and the feeling of connection with the vastness of the universe. Dr. Mitchell has written about his mystical experiences in his book, The Way of the Explorer.
In his speech, Dr. Mitchell told his personal story of how he got to become an astronaut. He grew up on a ranch in Texas, and always wanted to fly. He had his chance in the Navy. He noted that his great-grandfather had trekked across the plains from Georgia to Texas in the mid-1800's in a covered wagon, to make a better life for his family. Two generations later, his great-grandson walked on the moon. From horses and buggies to lunar landing modules in the span of a hundred years is just one example of how far we have come as a society, and shows just how far we can go.
Dr. Mitchell's speech reminded us that although the world seems big, it is a small, fragile place compared with the vastness of the universe. He reflected on the accomplishments of the space program, and in his book The Way of the Explorer, he remarks on the extraordinary achievement of the space program, and how incredible it was that men could walk on the moon:
...[T]his wasn't the achievement of an individual, a space agency or even a country. The was, rather, the achievement of our species, our civilization. Life had come a long way since it first sprang from the earth's rock and water. And now, hundreds of thousands of miles away on that small blue and white sphere, millions of human beings were watching two men walk about the surface of another world for the third time in our history. These were momentous days, extraordinary for their audacity, extraordinary for the coordination of minds and skills that made them possible...
Edgar Mitchell is a true American hero, and one I am proud to have encountered in my travels. I hope that this brief meeting we had with him will inspire our son Alex to dream big, and reach for the stars.