Photo credit: Hilary Jones
My new book Phenomena
is about science versus the supernatural. It’s about scientists and psychics with top-secret clearances. As a national security reporter, I write about war, weapons, U.S. national security, and secrets; it’s fair to wonder what such bizarre concepts as extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis (PK), and map dowsing (all pre-science means of divination) might have to do with national security. Quite a lot, I learned, while researching and reporting this nonfiction book.
Future book ideas generally come to me while I’m at work on an earlier book. In 2014, while writing The Pentagon’s Brain
(a book about DARPA, the most powerful and productive military science agency in the world), I came across a remarkable photograph in NASA’s Apollo image library that later became the launch point for this book. In the photo, an astronaut stands on the surface of the Moon holding in a gloved hand a piece of paper — as if reading from it! What a powerful and marvelous photograph
, I thought. An intense juxtaposition of advanced science (space travel) and proto-technology (writing), captured in a single image.
My next thought was, What was the astronaut reading? And why interrupt important scientific work (lunar surface studies) to use an extremely limited resource (time), to read?
In investigating further, I learned two of the most remarkable facts to ever come my way. The Apollo 14 astronaut, Ed Mitchell, was reading a map — a map of the Moon. While walking on the lunar surface, Ed Mitchell and his fellow astronaut Alan Shepard had gotten lost.
The map, I learned, was to assist them in finding what they’d come in search of: rock samples from a meteor impact site called Cone Crater. Geologists on Earth believed that these rocks could provide information about a cataclysmic event understood to have occurred one billion years before. According to the map, Cone Crater was just a 1,000 or so yards away. But the astronauts couldn’t seem to locate it.
When anyone asks me what it’s like to be a journalist who writes narrative nonfiction books, my first response is that it’s the best job in the world. Whatever I may be learning from a source I’m interviewing — extraordinary discoveries, heroic wins, monumental failures, or frightening dead ends — there’s always something more to learn. Always another question to ask. I approach my books as if they’re giant puzzles to solve, the mysteries of which I try and relay to readers using the pre-science tool of narrative storytelling.
What human is not fascinated by the concept of getting lost? It’s inherent to life’s journey, part of the proverbial womb-to-tomb expedition we all make. Lost is a place familiar to everyone on Earth, and until I’d seen this Apollo 14 photograph, I’d never considered that this same idea could apply to men on the Moon
. Here on Earth, getting lost can be a blessing — part of any quest. To get lost begets figuring out a way to get back on track.
On the Moon, getting lost devastated Ed Mitchell. He and Alan Shepard were running out of oxygen. There was no getting back on track. NASA officials in Houston ordered them to abort their mission, to turn around and head home.
The facts astound: Apollo 14 astronauts Ed Mitchell, Alan Shepard, and Stuart Roosa had travelled 240,000 miles from Earth to the Moon. Mitchell, the landing pilot, set down the Antares
space craft on the lunar surface just 87 feet from a predetermined target. Then, in a kind of Holy Grail of ironies, the astronauts got lost locally while trying to find a specific crater on the Moon.
I traveled to Florida to interview Ed Mitchell. He told me that at first, realizing he’d come all the way to the Moon only to have to turn around before
reaching the ultimate destination felt like a crushing blow. He said that initially, he experienced profound disappointment during the ride home. But then something profound happened, he said. On the way back from the Moon, he had an epiphany. An experience that set his life on a new path. Staring out into space, Mitchell began to contemplate stellar evolution, pushing his mind to consider, “when time began.” A scientist by training (Mitchell earned a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), he became overwhelmingly convinced there was a supernatural force guiding the universe, he said, a force science and the laws of nature could not yet explain. Some might describe Mitchell’s experience as a religious epiphany. Mitchell described it to me as, “savikalpa samadhi,” a term from ancient Sanskrit that means perfect oneness with the universe.
In the world of Phenomena
, what happened to Ed Mitchell on the way back from the Moon is called a conversion event. An experience that fundamentally alters a person’s life, and from which there is no turning back. Mitchell quit NASA, divorced his wife, made new colleagues and friends, and dedicated the rest of his life to the research and study of extrasensory perception and psychokinesis — disciplines the mainstream scientific community rejects as pseudoscience. Critical to Ed Mitchell’s role in my book, shortly after returning from the Moon, he opened a research institute in California, which quickly became a cover, or front, for the CIA.
When anyone asks me what it’s like to be a journalist who writes narrative nonfiction books, my first response is that it’s the best job in the world.
I’d long been interested in the CIA and the Defense Department’s use of psychics. This story has been told in bits and pieces over the years by subject-matter advocates and antagonists alike. After that first interview with Ed Mitchell, I saw my own way in — what I hoped would be a neutral, objective way to tell this remarkable story. Phenomena
tells the history of the government’s top-secret investigations into anomalous mental cognition, from the end of World War II into the modern era.
In researching the book, I obtained over 1,000 original pages of declassified documents from the CIA as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. I also received hundreds more documents from the Department of Defense, the FBI, and the NSA. From these documents, I learned that the real action began in the 1970s, in Silicon Valley. That’s when the CIA tasked a group of scientists with top-secret clearances to conduct experiments with psychics. The classified results were spectacular — far beyond CIA expectations. For the CIA handlers assigned to monitor these psychic sessions, many of which took place at Stanford Research International (SRI), the term “eight martini results” was born: information so unnerving, the handler had to drink eight martinis to process the unfathomable nature of the results. I tracked down dozens of scientists and psychics who participated in the CIA’s program and the military programs that followed. I also interviewed skeptics of the programs, individuals whose voice is equally important to the narrative. Phenomena
is a book about all of them.
So, who wins the battle in Science vs. the Supernatural? Decades of research, now declassified, reveals a trove of new information: astonishing wins, grand failures, extraordinary discoveries, and spooky dead ends. But the battle is far from over, I learned. With rapidly advancing technological breakthroughs in neurobiology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology — all of which allow defense scientists to look directly into the human brain and body — the battle between science and the supernatural has really just begun.
Ed Mitchell died on February 4, 2016, just a few hours before the 45th anniversary of the exact moment he landed the Antares on the Moon.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the New York Times
bestsellers Area 51
and Operation Paperclip
and the Pulitzer Prize–finalist The Pentagon's Brain
. She was a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine
. A graduate of Princeton University, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. Phenomena
is her new book.