Edgar D. Mitchell, Commander of Apollo 14 and the sixth man to ever walk on the moon, died on Feb. 4, 2016 at age 85. Born in 1930, he’d been interested in flying since he was a child. He became a Navy pilot before joining the astronaut corps in 1966. Apollo 14 was his only spaceflight.
Mitchell said his trip to space ignited a spiritual revelation. “Above all, I felt the need for a radical change in our culture. I knew we were replete with untapped intuitive and psychic forces which we must utilize if we were to survive.” He later founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences to study consciousness and the mind.
In honor of Mitchell’s out-of-this-world legacy, we’re remembering him and other space explorers who set foot on the moon before their final departure. Read on to learn more about their inspiration and how they died.
Neil Armstrong: Modest Man on the Moon
Commander of Apollo 11 and the first man to walk on the moon, Armstrong died August 25, 2012, at 82. Born in 1930, he was a U.S. Navy pilot during the Korean War. After graduating college he became a test pilot, flying rocket planes like the X-1B and X-15. He became the first civilian pilot selected for the astronaut corps in 1962. His first spaceflight was as commander of Gemini 8 in 1966. His second flight was as commander of Apollo 11, the first landing on the moon in 1969.
Armstrong was often described as a humble man, and he did not seek celebrity following his historic lunar mission. However, he remained an advocate for further space exploration. “Some question why Americans should return to the Moon. ‘After all,’ they say ‘we have already been there.’ I find that mystifying,” he recalled in a letter about his testimony before Congress. “Americans have visited and examined six locations on Luna, varying in size from a suburban lot to a small township. That leaves more than 14 million square miles yet to explore.”
Pete Conrad: “It may have been a small ‘step’ for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”
Commander of Apollo 12 and the third man to walk on the moon, Conrad died July 8, 1999, at 69 in a motorcycle accident. Born in 1930, he was a Naval aviator and test pilot who was initially deemed unsuitable for long-duration flight during rigorous medical evaluations during the first astronaut screening program. Convinced to reapply to NASA in 1962 by astronaut and fellow Navy aviator Alan Shepard, Conrad eventually set endurance records during the Gemini and Skylab programs. He flew four space missions, including Apollo 12.
Conrad was known for his sense of humor and his small stature, standing 5 ft. 6.5 in. tall. When he set foot on the moon he exclaimed, “That may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.” He received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor for repairing the damaged Skylab space station during the Skylab 2 mission.
James Irwin: Explorer of Outer Space (and Planet Earth)
Irwin, Lunar Module pilot of Apollo 15 and the eighth man to walk on the moon, died August 8, 1991 of a heart attack. He was 61. Born in 1930, he was a U.S. Air Force before becoming an astronaut in 1966. His only spaceflight was Apollo 15.
Irwin was a religious man and after leaving NASA he co-founded High Flight, a nonprofit that organizes trips to the holy land. Beyond exploring space, he sought to make unprecedented discoveries on earth, leading two expeditions to Mount Ararat in Turkey in search of evidence of Noah’s Ark. He suffered severe injuries during a fall on a glacier during the second expedition. He said of the experience, “It’s easier to walk on the moon.”
Alan Shepard: An Astronaut of Contradictions
Commander of Apollo 14 and the fifth man to walk on the moon, Shepard died July 21, 1998 at 74. Born in 1923, he was a Navy test pilot and became one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts in 1959. On May 5, 1961, he became the second person (and first American) to travel into space when he piloted Freedom 7 on a 15-minute suborbital flight. He later overcame a debilitating inner ear disease to command Apollo 14, and became the only original Mercury Seven astronaut to walk on the moon.
Shepard could be described as a man of contradictions. When his Freedom 7 launch was delayed on the pad for four hours as he waited inside the capsule, he eventually asked mission control, “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?” But he also had a lighter side, such as when he hit golf balls on the lunar surface at the end of the successful Apollo 14 mission.
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