To boldly go: The inner experience of outer space

They are the chosen ones. They are highly trained and fully prepared. Some are literal rocket scientists. So why do so many astronauts sound like mystics when they come back from space?
(NASA)

Astronomer Fred Hoyle always did have a gift for analogy — he was the guy who coined the phrase 'Big Bang' — but he might have been wrong this time. Space, he said, is actually not so far off:

"It's only an hour's drive away," said Sir Fred, "if your car could go straight upwards."

As it turns out, the voyage into space can't always be measured in numbers. And there are astronauts who conclude that the distance they've travelled is beyond any calculation.

We are stardust

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell returned to Earth a different person than the man who had launched nine days earlier. The mission, which he once said was "akin to a religious experience," sparked a euphoria in Mitchell. Actually, it was the trip home that did it.

My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity.- Edgar Mitchell

"I realized that [the] stars out there were the organizers and creators of my molecules — and suddenly it became personal. Instead of an intellectual awareness, it became a visceral acceptance."

Mitchell felt compelled to share his experience with others when he returned to Earth. In the video below, Ellen Mahoney, who co-authored Mitchell's memoir, tells the story of his epiphany.

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell experiences a life-changing epiphany during his return flight to earth (Video footage courtesy: NASA) 2:14

Edgar Mitchell would continue exploring long after the Apollo 14 command module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. He founded the Institute for Noetic Sciences (from the Greek noesis, or noetikos, meaning inner wisdom or direct knowing); he also pursued widely-derided theories about UFOs and extra-sensory perception.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote of the profound effect space travel had on the astronaut: "Edgar Mitchell was a different person upon returning to Earth, having obtained a cosmic perspective on life that so few of us will ever achieve."

LISTEN: Tapestry's look at Edgar Mitchell and his spiritual transformation in space

The overview effect

The next generation of astronauts would have life-changing moments of their own. Nicole Stott completed two missions on the International Space Station. She was the first person to paint in space, and is now a full-time artist.

"You're there, and you are separated from what you know and love in a very different way, but at the same time, I felt more connected than I ever had before," she said. "I think that's kind of a big deal. You know, looking at the whole planet as where I live, and where all the people I care about and love live, and those that I don't even know yet live there as well."

Minutes before going up the elevator to the launch pad, I just grabbed these guys in a group hug and said, 'Hey, I'm gonna say a little prayer for us.'- Nicole Stott

Standing on the launchpad before going into space, Stott, a religious believer, pulled her crew in for a huddle and said a prayer of gratitude and for safety.

Once aboard the ISS, the demands of her workload meant she had to use a timer to limit her gazing-out-into-space. The experience was so mesmerizing, Stott feared that without that reminder, a planned five minutes could easily turn into hours.

The Tampa-based astronaut said the time spent looking out the window, although strictly rationed, offered an unexpected gift: a newfound sense of connection to the planet beneath her. Listen to her describe it in the video below.

STS-128 astronaut Nicole Stott on feeling the ‘human connection’ while looking down on Earth (Video footage courtesy: NASA) 1:23

The ISS may be among the most complex engineering projects in human history, but Nicole Stott came to regard it as something else, too.

"This masterpiece — this, I would argue cathedral that we have in space, the International Space Station — is being operated by this global community. And it's being done peacefully and quietly and successfully like nothing else I know. And it is, I think, the most wonderful example of how we should be doing so many other things down here together on Earth."

Not every astronaut experiences what has been called 'the overview effect' — the profound sense of awe and wonder which can envelop you when you leave your home planet (just take a minute with that). But the phenomenon goes back a long way.

LISTEN: Tapestry's full Nicole Stott interview

A sense of awe

Ed White was of an earlier generation — he became the first American to walk in space at roughly the time Nicole Stott was learning to crawl. But White experienced a very similar sense of awe, rooted in both science and spirituality, during his 1965 Gemini mission.

White was a devout Methodist, who carried into space — and on his spacewalk — a St. Christopher's medal, a gold cross, and a Star of David.

"I'm coming back in. And it's the saddest moment of my life." - Ed White

"I had great faith in myself and especially in Jim (McDivitt, mission commander), and also I think I had great faith in my God," White said, according to his NASA biography. "So the reason I took those symbols was that I think this was the most important thing I had going for me, and I felt that while I couldn't take one for every religion in the country, I could take the three I was most familiar with."

Astronaut Edward H. White II performed the first American spacewalk during the Gemini 4 mission on June 3, 1965. (NASA)

Astronaut Edward H. White II performed the first American spacewalk during the Gemini 4 mission on June 3, 1965. (NASA)

Apart from his determination to honour the divine in space, Ed White contributed one of the all-time great lines in Mission Control chatter. When his historic stroll in space was completed, White radioed back to Earth: "I'm coming back in. And it's the saddest moment of my life."

Ed White died less than two years later on the Apollo 1 launch pad; he was one of three astronauts trapped in a command-module fire. The men were mourned again this past January, on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

These aren't the words you're looking for

Language is elusive when it comes to finding words for the more mind-expanding aspects of space travel (existential epiphanies can be like that). But Michael Collins, Apollo 11's command module pilot, did pretty well as he searched for a way to convey the experience: "I think a future flight should include a poet, a priest, and a philosopher. We might get a much better idea of what we saw."

Edgar Mitchell, too, sometimes found it challenging to express what happened to him in space. In fact, he had to go beyond the English language to find the right word: samadhi.

It's no wonder one of Mitchell's most definitive accounts appeared in an interview with Hinduism Today:

"On the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space towards the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious," Mitchell told the magazine.

"Hindus," the interviewer replied, "would immediately suggest that you were experiencing the kundalini force."

"Yes, that's exactly what I was experiencing," Mitchell said. "The primordial energy of the universe, the primal and subtlest energies."

Mitchell was an aeronautical engineer and former test pilot, a product of NASA and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) — twin Meccas of empirical thought. Very few people with his credentials would conclude that science is only one way of understanding the universe.

But that's exactly what Edgar Mitchell came to believe after Apollo 14.

Ground control to Major Tom

Space-talk has long been entrenched in popular culture — whether it's served up by NASA, Gene Roddenberry ... or David Bowie.

That's one small step for man … Beam me up, Scotty! ... Houston, we have a problem ... Check ignition and may God's love be with you.

It may, perhaps, be easier for fiction to capture existential discoveries; deep thoughts can be served up in carefully-crafted dialogue. But fact and fiction would blend seamlessly after the death of beloved Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Check ignition and may God's love be with you.- David Bowie

Patrick Stewart, a.k.a. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, spoke at the funeral and delivered lines Roddenberry himself had written for a Next Generation episode.

The speech spans, in a handful of remarkable lines, the meaning of death, the marvels of the universe, and whether or not there is a Creator.

"Considering the marvellous complexity of our universe, its clockwork perfection, its balances of this against that, matter, energy, gravitation, time, dimension, I believe that our existence … goes beyond Euclidian and other practical measuring systems. And that our existence is part of a reality beyond what we understand now as reality."

LISTEN: Tapestry's full program on the inner experience of outer space

There were no script writers for Rusty Schweickart, of Apollo 9 and the Skylab program, but the astronaut managed his own piece of eloquence.

Schweickart, who described the home planet as "that bright blue and white Christmas tree ornament," said seeing it from space sparked a profound change in him.

"It is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in the universe that you can block it out with your thumb. And you realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you've changed, that there's something new there. That the relationship is no longer what it was."

Photos and video footage courtesy of NASA. Edgar Mitchell audio clip courtesy of NBC News.