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To the moon and back: Astronaut discusses the Space Age’s past and future at WCU

The Apollo 16 crew captured this Earthrise with a handheld Hasselblad camera during the second revolution of the moon. NASA photo The Apollo 16 crew captured this Earthrise with a handheld Hasselblad camera during the second revolution of the moon. NASA photo

There are a few moments in history that every American alive at the time remembers in crisp detail. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The first moon landing. The terrorist attacks of September 11. 

All three bore significance during astronaut Charlie Duke’s visit to Western Carolina University last week, on the 18th anniversary of the twin towers’ collapse. Two years before his death in November 1963, Kennedy changed the course of American history when he pledged during a May 1961 speech that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. NASA met that challenge with just over four months to spare when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the lunar surface, on July 20, 1969. 

Duke knows exactly where he was when that milestone in history was marked. He was in Houston, at mission control, talking to Neil Armstrong. 

“I was the guy you’d hear from mission control talking to the crew, CAPCOM — a capsule communicator, that’s what it stands for,” he said in an interview preceding his talk at WCU. “It’s the only person in mission control that can actually talk to the crew.”

It was exciting, and incredibly stressful. 

“We had a lot of problems on descent. We had communication problems, we had computer problems, we had trajectory problems, and that led to a fuel problem, so we get down to minimal fuel,” he told the audience, which nearly filled the 1,000-seat auditorium at the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. “And I called, ‘Eagle 60 seconds,’ and he had 60 seconds to land. And then I called, ‘Eagle 30 seconds,’ and they still weren’t on the ground, but they were close. Then 13 seconds later I heard Buzz (Aldrin) saying, ‘contact engine stopped,’ and we knew they were on the ground. The tension just sort of evaporated in mission control. We actually landed on the moon. 

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“Neil Armstrong came back a few seconds later and says, very calmly, ‘Houston, Tranquility Base, the Eagle has landed.’ And I was so excited I couldn’t even pronounce ‘tranquility.’” 

At the time, Duke didn’t know that he would one day follow the path blazed by Armstrong and Aldrin, that he would one day be taking his own small steps on the moon. 

But later that year, Duke was picked to join the backup crew for Apollo 13. He wasn’t needed for that mission, but his selection put him in line to take part in Apollo 16, which blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 12:54 p.m. Sunday, April 16, 1972, catapulting Duke into the adventure of a lifetime. 

 

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Duke collects lunar samples at Station No. 1 (left) during the mission’s first moonwalk in this photo taken by Commander John Young. NASA photo

 

Start of the Space Race

That liftoff was the beginning of an 11-day trip that included three days of life-changing exploration on the moon’s surface. But Duke didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming an astronaut. 

He couldn’t have, really — when Duke was born in Charlotte, in 1935, Germany had not yet invaded Poland, World War II had not yet started, the atomic bomb had not yet been dropped on Japan and the Space Race had not yet begun. 

In fact, the word “astronaut” had been coined a mere seven years earlier, its first known use occurring in 1928, according to Merriam-Webster. 

“If I told my momma I was going to walk on the moon, Momma would have sent me to the psychiatric hospital. It wasn’t a thought,” Duke said. 

He wanted to serve his country, though, so he went to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he fell in love with airplanes. That love presented him with a conundrum — should he join the Air Force or go into aviation for the Navy? The decision was made for him when a Navy doctor informed him that the astigmatism in his right eye disqualified him from a spot in Navy aviation. 

“So I went into the Air Force, and it was the best decision I ever made in my life,” he said. 

He started flight school in 1957, the same year that the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik inaugurated the Space Age with its launch on Oct. 4. After flight school, Duke went to Germany as a fighter pilot, and that’s where he was living when Kennedy announced the moon landing goal.

“I was a young fighter pilot in Germany in 1961, and Alan Shepherd had flown 15 minutes in space, America’s first astronaut in space, and that was May 5 of 1961,” he said. “By the end of May, Kennedy announced the Apollo program. Well, we laughed at him. Golly. Back then it was 5-4-3-2-1 blow up, and he’s committing to the moon in eight years and a half? But the most amazing thing now looking back was that eight years and two months later I was sitting at mission control talking to Neil Armstrong.”

Duke was loving life in Germany and not really looking for a change when the Air Force suggested that he go get a graduate degree. He still thinks about what might have happened if he’d declined. 

“If I’d of said no to that and stayed in Germany for another year, I never would have been to the moon,” he said. “But I took that job at MIT and met some astronauts. The astronauts were so excited, so enthusiastic about their job, I said, ‘How do I get that job?’”

Duke graduated with a master’s degree in aeronautics in 1964 and was one of 19 astronauts selected for NASA’s space program in 1966. In 1972, he became the 10th of 12 people to have ever walked on the moon’s surface. Thirty-six years old at the time, he is the youngest person to have ever done so, and one of only four moonwalkers still living.

 

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Now 83, Charles Duke is one of 12 people — four of whom are still alive — to have walked on the moon’s surface. Holly Kays photo

 

The adventure

He’s 83 now, but he can still recall that adventure in vivid detail. 

The upward movement was slow at first as the rocket gathered acceleration, speeding up to attain the force necessary to break through the atmosphere and enter space. That entry was like being in a train wreck, said Duke, acceleration dropping to zero at the snap of a finger. The astronauts orbited earth one-and-a-half times before turning the spacecraft toward the moon. As the craft turned, they caught a view of Baja California, surrounded by the blue of the ocean and the ridges of the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas. 

“It was this jewel of the beauty of Earth suspended in the blackness of space,” he said. 

They were on their way to the moon. 

The landing almost didn’t happen. One hour out from the planned landing, Command Module Pilot Thomas Mattingly radioed over that something was wrong with the main engine, an engine that was quite necessary were the astronauts to ever leave the moon. 

“If you thought your heart could hit the bottom of your boots, in zero gravity, it did,” said Duke. 

The thought of having spent all that time in training, come all the way from Earth, just to fall a handful of miles short of a lunar landing was crushing. 

“But mission control came through,” he said. “They couldn’t fix it, but they gave us some workarounds.”

Six hours later, Duke and Commander John Young had landed on the moon. 

“The landing is very dynamic,” said Duke in the pre-event interview. “You’re coming into a landing area that you have only seen roughly in photographs. So the photographs we had, had a resolution of 45 feet. Objects smaller than 45 feet you couldn’t see in the photographs of our landing area. So as we came in, you started seeing all of these other craters and rocks and valleys and hills and stuff. And so it was very dynamic when maneuvering to land.”

They landed, and they got out, and they walked on the moon. 

The emotions of that moment, said Duke, were “overwhelming.”

“It’s beautiful. I felt right at home. There was no sense of danger at this point,” he said in the interview. “Jack Schimdt, who was on the last mission to the moon, describes walking on the moon like walking on a trampoline. And that’s what it’s like because you’re one-sixth gravity and you just have this feeling of bouncing across.”

They spent three days there, or 71 hours and 14 minutes, to be exact. Every day, they would wake up, eat a meal, go through a briefing with Houston and put their spacesuits on, an endeavor that took about three hours. Then they would go outside — the longest of the three excursions they embarked on was seven hours and 40 minutes — and return to remove their suits, put up their hammocks and sleep. 

The space was cramped, but the activity-filled days guaranteed a solid sleep. With gravity at one-sixth the amount on Earth, walking itself required very little energy. But the astronauts were wearing spacesuits that weighed as much as they did, and that complicated things. They wore heartbeat monitors, and when the rate went over 140 beats per minute mission control would tell them to stop and rest. For Duke, that happened several different times. 

“You’re fighting the suit. You’re working inside the suit, like squeezing a rubber ball all day,” he said. “It’s bouncy and you feel the lightness about it, so it’s hard work working the suit, but the motion of walking on the moon doesn’t require much energy.”

There was only one moment where fear set in, said Duke. He and Young decided to inaugurate the lunar Olympics, crushing the records of Earth-bound athletes with the aid of reduced gravity. Duke went for the high jump but lost his balance in midair, nearly falling straight on his back. The astronauts’ backpacks contained their life support systems and weren’t designed to take the impact of a backwards fall. 

“My heart was pounding, but everything held together,” Duke told the audience. “That was the beginning and the end of the Moon Olympics.”

A major objective of the mission was to gather data on the lunar surface. Duke and Young drove more than 16 miles over the course of their three moonwalks. By the end of the mission, they’d collected 209 pounds of samples as well as an overwhelming amount of moon dust, which stuck to their suits and clung to the oils in their skin once inside the lunar module. They left the car on the moon when they departed. 

“If you want an $8 million car with a dead battery, I can tell you where to go,” Duke joked. 

 

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Duke (left) was in charge of communicating with the lunar module during the first moon landing in 1969. NASA photo

 

The aftermath

When Duke splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on April 27, it was after having completed a feat that only 10 people out of all the trillions who had walked the earth at that time could claim — and he’d done it while still a young man of 36. 

It was an accomplishment that brought pride, but also confusion. 

“I’d climbed to the top of the ladder and I was frustrated. I had no peace,” he said. “My marriage got worse and worse.”

Duke stayed with NASA for a while. He returned from the moon knowing he wanted to go again, and he landed a backup slot on the Apollo 17 mission. But the crew stayed healthy and he didn’t go. He worked on the space shuttle program for a while, but it just wasn’t the same as the dynamic and fast-paced experience at Apollo. It was a lot of meetings and very little action, it seemed to Duke. He left NASA in 1975 but remained in the Air Force Reserve, going on to pursue various business opportunities — Duke was a beer distributor for two years, then he sold the company and went into real estate. He retired from the Air Force in 1986 with the rank of Brigadier General.

The aftermath of his lunar adventure included a spiritual reckoning alongside the professional one. 

“Even though I had been into the heavens, I hadn’t found God on my moon flight,” Duke wrote in his testimony, “Walk on the Moon, Walk with the Son.” “As a matter of fact, I didn’t even find him in church. A Sunday churchian, I read the scriptures without believing a word. My thoughts about Jesus? I believed he was a great teacher, like Buddah or Muhammad.”

Duke was obsessed with his career, spending little time with his family, his wife Dorothy wrote in her testimony, “From Sadness to Joy.” In 1975, as Duke was leaving NASA and entering the beer business, Dorothy became a Christian. The conversion changed her, and Duke took notice. Two-and-a-half years later, he also gave his life to Christ. Their marriage recovered, and thus far it’s lasted 44 years. Duke and Dorothy now operate Duke Ministry for Christ and are active in prison ministry. 

“I came back and I was saying, ‘You just see earth, you don’t see the cultures or the borders or nations. You just see earth. We’re all one down here and we’ve all got to learn to get along and love one another,’” said Duke. “There was probably almost six years I was saying that, but I couldn’t even love my wife. How could I love the Africans or the Asians or whoever? Then I realized, ‘God so loved the world.’ He loves everybody. When Jesus came into my life it gave me a love for everybody.”

The conversion refocused Duke’s life, but he’s maintained a fascination with space exploration and an optimism about its future. The beginnings of the space tourism industry are exciting, he said, though NASA will continue to play a vital role. 

“I think that’s going to be a big input into the future,” he said of the commercial side, “and NASA can concentrate on deep space, the moon and Mars and stuff. That’s where NASA’s expertise is.”

The next challenge, said Duke, is to develop a base on the moon where humans can survive on an ongoing basis. Once we’ve developed a system we can use with confidence, we can set our sights on Mars. 

“Once you go to Mars you’re on your own. There’s no resupply, no repair from Houston or anything like that, so you’ve got to have confidence in your equipment, and you could do that on a lunar base,” said Duke.

“I think we’ll get there, not sure when. It’s not a technical problem, really. It’s a budget.” 

 

Watch Duke’s talk

WCU hosted “An Out-of-this-World Chat with Charlie Duke” as part of its Free Enterprise Speaker Series, a forum for the campus and community to explore various points of view on important issues and to hear from renowned experts from a variety of fields and perspectives. 

A video of the presentation is available at https://bit.ly/2kkk9oN. 

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