Book Review #3  The Way of the Explorer By Edger Mitchell

“Do You Believe in Fairies?  If You do Clap Your Hands!”  Peter Pan

Someone said that, FairyTale: A True Story, was like the Leonardo DiCaprio,  Kate Winslet movie TITANIC: A True Story.  That was harsh.  The true story in question was that of the Cottingley Fairies, an early 20th century hoax.    The year was 1917 and the place was the picturesque West Yorkshire village of Cottingley.   Elsie Wright and her nine year cousin Frances Griffiths were best friends.  The two uncommonly attractive girls enjoyed exploring the English countryside together.   One fateful day they brought a Midg camera with them on their adventures.   With this relatively small but adequate photographic equipment, the girls captured striking images of each other as they frolicked by the brook with their friends who were, well there’s no other way to say this, with their friends who were fairies

The photographs soon came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O’Toole).   The world famous author of Sherlock Holmes was a huge believer in fairies and he pounced upon the photographs as empirical proof of fairy existence.  Conan Doyle believed this to be the discovery of the century.  In this he wasn’t alone, at that time many adults believed in fairies.  Conan Doyle’s childlike naivety was counterbalanced by the skepticism of his friend the eminent debunker, Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel).  Houdini, who is best remembered today as a master escape artist and illusionist, made it his business to expose charlatans and frauds wherever he might find them.  The movie version of Houdini is more circumspect.  Houdini, as played by Harvey Keitel, drew a distinction between malicious frauds perpetrated for profit and innocent pranks concocted for fun.    

SPOILER ALERT!  Too tenderhearted to expose the little girls’ harmless ruse Houdini came to understand that in a world filled with so much sorrow and grief it was wicked to deprive people of their fantasies.  The film was unusual in that it portrayed a skeptic as a sympathetic and compassionate individual.  The problem is the moment Houdini decided to give the girls a pass is the moment he stopped being a skeptic.  A true skeptic would understand that any belief based on false information is ultimately destructive.  The real Houdini would be spinning in his grave.   END OF SPOILER ALERT!

As I left the theater I overheard a confused young man say to his girlfriend,  “That movie didn’t make any sense.  How could Arthur Conan Doyle have been so smart as to create Sherlock Holmes and yet so brainless as to believe in fairies?  Were people back then stupid?”  I can’t answer the first question, but I can answer the second.  People today are by no means any smarter than they were in 1917.   

Alan Shepard and Mickey Mouse

Alan Shepard shared a birthday, November 18th, with another iconic American, Mickey Mouse.  On May 5, 1961 Shepard became the first American in space.   But his flight was none too impressive when compared to that of Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.  Only weeks previous Gagarin had circled the Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.  By contrast Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone 3 flight was just a 15 minute suborbital cannonball lob; up and then down again.  But those brief minutes had whetted Shepard’s appetite.   He burned with the desire to fly higher, faster and further.  Shepard had his sights set on the moon.  But before he could fly again he received a devastating diagnoses.  Alan Shepard had Ménière’s, a disease for which there was no know cure.  The astronaut’s flying career was finished.

Many people expected him to leave NASA.   But Shepard stayed on, slowly and surly growing his power and political clout hoping that, against all odds, he’d fly again.    It took ten long years but with the aid of an experimental and high risk surgery the symptoms of disease were brought under control.    Shepard was returned to flight status and he wasted no time in assigning himself to command the next available Apollo lunar landing mission.   

It’s said that Shepard offered a position on his crew to Jim McDivitt and that the offer was declined.   McDivitt had flown twice before as a mission commander accumulating more than 14 days in space.  Why should he step-down to fly co-pilot to a man who had only minutes in space?  And there might have been more to the decision than that.  Shepard had a reputation of being emotionally unpredictable.  He could run hot or cold.   In his 1979 book The Right Stuff author Tom Wolfe referred to Shepard mood swings as “Smilin’ Al” and the “Icy Commander.”   This behavior was reason for concern for any potential crewmember.

For Apollo 14 Shepard chose an entirely rookie crew.  His CM pilot, Stuart Roosa, had never even served on a back up crew.  Going straight to the prime crew was a NASA first.  Shepard’s LM pilot, the man who would assist him on the moon, was Edgar Mitchell, also a rookie but one who was both a trained test-pilot and a Ph.D. scientist. 

“It’s Been a Long Way, But We’re Here.”

Apollo14 launched on January 31, 1971.  After the near disaster of Apollo 13 the stakes were high and the flight to the moon was anything but smooth.  Difficulty docking the CSM: Kitty Hawk to the LM: Antares almost resulted in an aborted mission.  Software engineers at MIT had to do a last minute rewrite of the computer programing to bypass a glitch and the Mitchell needed to enter the corrections by hand.   The landing at Fra Mauro was pinpoint accurate but the landing area was so uneven that Shepard and Mitchell feared Antares might tip over.

Even so the rookie crew came through and Apollo 14 was a fully successful flight.  Stepping off the landing pad Shepard’s first words on the lunar surface were, “It’s been a long way, but we’re here.”  Unknown to Shepard, indeed unknown to anyone at NASA,  Mitchell had engaged in some extracurricular activate during the flight.  He had become the first person to experiment with ESP while in space. 

Who You Goin’ Call?  GHOSTBUSTERS!

After the flight Mitchell retired from NASA and became a researcher of psychic phenomena.  Perhaps to sound a bit more respectable and distance himself from obvious crackpots he called it Noetic Science and opened his own institute.   For a time he operated out of an office in my home town of Palo Alto.  All kidding aside, Edgar Mitchell was an exceptionally kind and generous man.   As a student in the 7th grade my English teacher asked the class to write a paper about a member of the community.  This was before the internet and so I called Mitchell’s office to ask for information.  I was amazed when Mitchell’s secretary suggested we schedule an appointment for a half hour interview.  As a middle school student I didn’t feel that I was ready for that and so I declined.  That was the only time I was ever offered a one-to-one interview with a man who had walked on another world and I turned it down!  How do you like that?

Edgar Mitchell conducted his research and in doing so he was instrumental in bringing a little known Israeli nightclub performer named Uri Geller to the United States, to Palo Alto in fact.  With Mitchell’s seal of approval and support, the former astronaut was a true believer, Geller became quite famous.  He was best known for his ability to bend spoons.  Geller claimed to do so with the power of his mind alone.  This is known as telekinesis, the ability of a person to influence a physical system without physical interaction. 

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet, More Powerful Than a Locomotive

Is Uri Geller a fraud or does he have actual paranormal ability?  Thanks to the almighty internet you can answer that question for yourself.  Just visit YouTube you’ll find any number of videos of Geller caught red-handed.  Geller apologists are well aware of these videos and they’re ready with what they feel is a rational explanation. 

Geller’s friends and supporters freely admit that Uri cheats and that he cheats often.  But they’re quick to add that he only does so when his powers aren’t available.  This temporary loss of ability is due to the intense pressure he’s under.   Because Uri doesn’t want to disappoint anyone he resorts to trickery.   To be charitable it’s like saying that the class valedictorian is the smarted boy in the state and he only uses crib notes when his brain isn’t working.  To be not so charitable it’s like taking Viagra.   

What does Geller say about himself?  In his autobiography My Story Geller is nothing less than Superman on steroids.  Not even kryptonite can slow him down.  We learn that Geller’s powers come from extraterrestrials, he can fly (without an airplane).  He can dematerialize and re-materialize his body at will.   Most remarkable of all, the super advanced galactic space-aliens have chosen Geller to act as their sole conduit to humanity for the next fifty years.  These extraterrestrials communicate with Geller regularly by leaving him messages on his Sony tape recorder, keeping him apprised of all the latest galactic developments and such.  But after listening to the messages only once the tapes self-destruct just like on the Mission Impossible.  Geller is able to paraphrase but for some reason the super advanced galactic extraterrestrials sound just like the space hippies from the 1960’s Star Trek TV show. 

In his next book, The Geller Effect,  Uri is just a colossal dick.  Empowered not by extraterrestrials but by his own irresistible charm and superstar celebrity status Geller delighted in throwing his weight around.  The first family of Mexico were swept off their feet by the dashing Geller and quickly adopted him as member of their family.  In return Geller ordered the pilot of the presidential jet to do barrel rolls with the first lady aboard!  Honestly I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.   Later Geller is approached by a mysterious stranger wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses.  Geller is thrilled when the man claims to represent  the CIA.  At that first informal meeting Geller eagerly agreed to spy on his friends.   As Geller saw it he was acting for purely altruistic reasons.  The first family of Mexico was too stupid to understand the risks posed by the international communist conspiracy.  Geller’s supporters are aware of these books but are unwilling to read or discuss them. In their minds his books were written to entertain the less sophisticated elements of society and are not to be taken seriously. 

The Way of the Explorer 

Once, while visiting the gift shop at the visitor’s center of the Kennedy Space Center I happened to notice that they had hundreds of copies of Mitchell’s autobiography, The Way of the Explorer.  A quick check confirmed that it was the only book they had in stock that was written by a moonwalker.  This made me sad as I felt Mitchell’s book reflected poorly on the Apollo astronauts.  It was mostly about his dealing with psychics, faith healers and clairvoyants.  I won’t go into detail as that would be repetitive.  Instead I’d like to focus on just one incident that really says so much. 

On page 92 The Way of the Explorer, Mitchell recounts a truly remarkable event.  Mitchell, Uri Geller and several corroborating witnesses were seated at a table having lunch at the prestigious SRI think tank.  Over dessert Mitchell asked Geller to use his telekinetic ability to retrieve a camera he left on the moon.  Strange as this may sound Mitchell’s fantastic request wasn’t facetious.  He reasoned that NASA recorded the camera’s serial number and so its miraculous reappearance would silence the skeptics once and for all.   Geller, chowing down on a big bowl of strawberry ice-cream agreed to give it a try.  Moments later Geller cried out in pain as blood dripped from his lip.  Rather then spitting out the ice-cream, as any normal person would, Geller handed it to Mitchell for closer inspection. Upon examination Mitchell discovered that the bloody blob of ice-cream contained his long lost tiepin!   Mitchell considered the experiment a partial success and was hopeful that the camera would someday reappear.   Personally I think they were lucky, very lucky  Had that big old 70mm Hasselblad materialized inside Geller’s mouth his head would’ve exploded like a Halloween pumpkin packed with an M-80.   They’d have been wiping what was left of Geller’s brains off the ceiling. 

But now our story takes a very sad and unfortunate turn.  In 2011 it was revealed that, unbeknownst to NASA, Edgar Mitchell was in possession of the camera.  Not only that but he was attempting to auction it off to the highest bidder.  Was it possible that Uri Geller had in fact retrieved it from the moon?  Well not exactly, Mitchell stated that the camera had been tucked away in his safe for the last 40 years.  What of convincing the skeptics?  On page 97 of Mitchell’s autobiography we read these words;

“New ideas do not prevail by convincing the skeptic, but rather funeral by funeral.” 

I believe that sentiment to be at odds with the scientific method.  It implies that evidence doesn’t matter.  Even worse, it sounds almost as if Mitchell was wishing death on the skeptics.  As for Uri Geller all I can say is that he never fails to amaze.  No one was more surprised than I when Geller turned up as an entourage member, apologist and mega-fan for entertainment megastar Michael Jackson  Who’d have thunk it? 

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