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.