US astronaut Edgar Mitchell, one of just 12 people to have walked on the moon, has died aged 85, his family and NASA said Friday, calling him a "pioneer."

NASA paid glowing tribute to Mitchell, who died in Florida after a brief illness late Thursday, the eve of the 45th anniversary of his lunar landing.

The late astronaut was a member of the 1971 Apollo 14 mission along with Alan Shepard Jr. and Stuart Roosa.

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Mitchell was the last Apollo 14 survivor: Roosa died in 1994 and Shepard in 1998.

Speaking in a 1997 interview for NASA's oral history program, Mitchell said that he was drawn to spaceflight after president John F. Kennedy's call to send astronauts to the Moon.

"That's what I wanted because it was the bear going over the mountain to see what he could see, and what could you learn, and I've been devoted to that, to exploration, education and discovery since my earliest years, and that's what kept me going," Mitchell said.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recalled Mitchell marveling at the stunning view of Earth from space.

"Edgar spoke poetically about seeing our home planet from the Moon saying, 'Suddenly, from behind the rim of the Moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery.

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"'It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth... home.’"

Bolden added: "He is one of the pioneers in space exploration on whose shoulders we now stand."

Buzz Aldrin, the second person on the Moon, echoed that on Twitter, calling Mitchell a "lunar pioneer."

The Apollo 14 mission -- Mitchell's only spaceflight -- began when the trio blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 31, 1971.

Mitchell was in charge of piloting the Antares lunar module, which landed in the Fra Mauro region of the Moon.

It was the third manned mission to the Moon and Mitchell became the sixth human to walk on the lunar surface.

During the mission the astronauts collected 100 pounds (40 kilos) of lunar rock samples and carried out a series of experiments.

The mission ended when the astronauts, traveling aboard a space capsule, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on February 9, 1971.

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In 1972 Mitchell retired from NASA and the following year he founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, dedicated to the study of consciousness and paranormal phenomena.

He said he believed that extra-terrestrial unidentified flying objects (UFOs) had visited the Earth, but acknowledged that he had never seen one.

Mitchell was the author of several books, including his 1996 memoir, "The Way of the Explorer."

Two daughters, three adopted sons and nine grandchildren are among family who survive him.

The family told The Palm Beach Post newspaper that Mitchell died at a West Palm Beach hospital after a short illness.