Moonwalker: Meeting Apollo Astronaut Charlie Duke [Squeals!] – Part I

Last Friday I travelled to Glasgow, Scotland, to meet a man who has walked on the moon.

(And Ben Johncock, who kindly gave me the ticket that would allow me to meet the man who has walked on the moon, and was suitably Apollo-obsessed company for the evening.)

The organizers of A Walk with Destiny had arranged for NASA astronaut and retired USAF Brigadier General Charlie Duke to come to Glasgow for a gala dinner and, the following night, a public lecture and autograph opportunity. Despite my years of Apollo obsession, I had never met an Apollo astronaut – the best I’d done was a Shuttle astronaut who went straight into in my Bad Book when he told me he’d ordered an Astronaut Corps application form the way “most people order pizza”, and didn’t know when the Challenger or Columbia tragedies had taken place – but after a bit of coercing from Ben (who, rather morbidly, reminded me that time was running out to meet the moonwalkers), I packed a bag, re-read the Apollo 16 chapter of A Man on the Moon and headed to Glasgow to meet one of my heroes.

One of The Twelve

Charlie Duke is not a name the general public will be familiar with, but then again the only Apollo names that have managed to permeate the consciousness at large seem to be Neil Armstrong, Buzz Lightyear and Tom Hanks, so that’s not saying much. To space buffs he is not only an Apollo astronaut, but one of The Holy Twelve: a man who has walked on a planetary body other than earth. The tenth to do so, to be specific, and born in 1935, the youngest.

Charlie Duke, speaking at Glasgow Caledonian University last Friday.

Accepted into NASA’s Astronaut Program in 1966 as part of the fifth group of potential spacemen, Duke wanted to fly in space because that was the best thing a test pilot could do, the pinnacle of a flying career at that time. Within six years, he’d have piloted a ship to the moon – and then got out and walked around on it, and fallen over a few times – but he is woven into much more Apollo history than just that.

‘Twangquility” Base: Apollo 11

Chances are, you’ve already heard Charlie Duke speak. He was the CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator) on duty when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and his twangy Carolina accent is all over one of the most listened to audio transmissions of the twentieth century.

Neil Armstrong himself asked for Duke to fulfill the role. At the time, Duke knew more about the intricacies of the Lunar Module (or the LEM, pronounced ‘Lem’) than any NASA astronaut not already assigned to an Apollo crew, and this no doubt helped him keep his calm – or at least the appearance of it – when things started to go drastically wrong 50,000 feet above the lunar surface.

Charlie Duke as Apollo 11's CAPCOM, July 1969.

With America minutes away from landing the first and second men on the moon and with billions around the world watching, NASA weren’t having the best of days on July 20th, 1969. Communication links between Houston and the LEM dropped in and out, spotting the transcripts with sustained bursts of static and momentarily clearing Mission Control’s displays of all data. A siren sounded; the LEM’s computer was flashing a “1202 program alarm.” This has never appeared in any of the training simulations, and the rules called for an abort. Breaths were held. Within seconds, a voice from a back room determined that the system was merely overloaded, and would soon reset itself. Speaking to Neil and Buzz, Charlie assured them, “You are go for landing.” His voice travelled a quarter of a million miles through the blackness of space before squawking into the LEM on a short delay.

Then Armstrong noticed that as they descended, reference points were appearing in the LEM’s triangular window two seconds ahead of schedule. Traveling above the lunar surface at nearly a mile a second, this meant they’d overshoot their landing site by two miles. Now of course, they weren’t exactly aiming for a runway or anything, but it would be nice – hell, crucial – to miss the scattered boulders that would snap off the spidery legs of their LEM as if they were twigs. He had no choice but to switch control to manual and land the ship himself.

Minor problem: the ship was moving so fast that Armstrong didn’t have time to tell Houston what he was doing. Heck, he didn’t even have time to tell Buzz, standing in the LEM beside him. A quiet descended over Mission Control as the line that represented the LEM’s actual trajectory suddenly deviated from the line representing what they’d planned. They could only hope that Neil was looking for a safe place to land, and that he’d find one. To make matters that bit more nail-biting, fuel was also running out. Foreheads began to shine with sweat; forgotten cigarettes hung limply from fingers, burning down. The whole world was watching, and two Americans were about to crash into the moon.

For over a minute Charlie Duke’s utterances were the only interruption in the otherwise silent tension. Calling off fuel checks in seconds worth of it left, they made things seem even more dire.

“Ninety seconds…”

“Sixty seconds…”

“Thirty seconds….”

Then, the voice of Buzz: “Contact light.” Rapid and indecipherable chatter as checklists were run through, safety precautions taken. They were on the moon, it seemed, but before they could look out the window, they had to make sure they could leave it again. More time passed. Mission Control waited.

Finally, the Commander’s voice filled the air: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Listen to the Apollo 11 lunar landing:

These words have since been so seared into history that it’s hard to comprehend now how they sounded the first time round, but they weren’t expected. Yes, they’d landed in the Sea of Tranquility and yes, the LEM had been christened the Eagle, but Tranquility Base? It sounded like something from Star Trek. And as for the poetry of “the Eagle has landed” – who knew the square and colorless Commander had the capacity for such a thing, and on the spur of the moment too?

Certainly not our CAPCOM Duke, who was so taken aback that he stumbled in his reply. “Roger, Twang-Tranquility Base, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys down here about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

(I love that stumble. It reminds us all that these were mere men, like the rest of us, and shows that for all its spectacle NASA’s moonshot was not stage-managed, despite what the cynics say. And if this doesn’t convince you, the transcript of Apollo 16‘s lunar landing most certainly will. But more on that later.)

Smiles broke out across Mission Control and Duke blew air out of his mouth. NASA had made history and landed man on the moon, but it had come uncomfortably close to disaster: Neil and Buzz had touched down with only twenty seconds of fuel left to spare.

Charlie Duke in silhouette against an image of the earth from space.

Exposure: Apollo 13

Duke also played a role in the ill-fated Apollo 13, albeit a less glamorous one: he went and got the measles. For two weeks he worked alongside his astronaut colleagues, unknowingly exposing them to the virus. Ken Mattingly was due to be 13‘s Command Module Pilot and unluckily for him, had never had the measles as a child. Doctors suspected he’d become symptomatic while in lunar orbit and alone in the CSM, or basically the worst possible time in the history of the world to come down with something. Three days before he was due to leave for the moon, Mattingly was told he’d been removed from the crew as a precaution.

(Three days! Can you even imagine the disappointment?)

The original Apollo 13 crew: Lovell, Mattingly and Haise. (Image from http://www.spacefacts.de)

This all worked out for the best though, as following the explosion Mattingly helped the crew get back to earth from Mission Control in Houston, and later flew with none other than Duke on Apollo 16. “But it wasn’t like it is in the movie,” Duke said last Friday night, referring to the Hollywood version of events, where NASA suits run around looking for Mattingly, eventually finding him sleeping off a drinking binge in a dingy motel. “We got there straightaway,” Duke assured us. “We were there in thirty minutes.” While they lost their chance to walk to on the moon, Apollo 13 made it home safely, thanks to the herculean  efforts of their NASA colleagues on the ground.

And in case you’re wondering, no, Mattingly never got the measles.

This afternoon, Part 2: Apollo 16, AKA The John and Charlie Show, something unexpected and how Charlie feels now when he looks up at the moon. Oh, and a god awful Aer Lingus flight home – with propellers!

Click here to read all my astronuts posts.

Photos not taken by the author are courtesy of NASA.

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