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

[Last Friday I travelled to Glasgow, Scotland, to meet one of my Apollo astronaut heroes, Apollo 16 Lunar Module Pilot Charlie Duke. You can read the first part of this post here.]

The John and Charlie Show: Apollo 16

Finally it came time for Charlie to fly in space himself, piloting Apollo 16‘s Lunar Module Orion in April 1972.

Alongside Commander John Young and Command Module Pilot Ken “I Never Got the Measles” Mattingly, Astronaut Duke would finally get his wings on a trip to the moon’s Descartes Highlands, where NASA geologists hoped to collect some volcanic rocks. (The previous mission, 15, was a tough act to follow in specimen terms: they’d come home with the so-called Genesis Rock, a slice of the moon’s primordial crust a cool 4.5 billion years old and as exciting to geologists as a seat on the Space Shuttle would be to me.) Young was even then a veteran space traveller, having flown on two Gemini missions and on Apollo 10, but Duke and Mattingly were rookies. For them, this trip to the moon would be their first into space.

Charlie Duke in silhouette against a photo of himself en route to the moon in April 1972.

Getting to the moon would prove eventful. Radio communications were frequently interrupted by a Spanish man whispering sweet nothings to his girlfriend over the phone, and then the lunar landing was delayed after problems with the engine control system on the Command Module Casper. All signs were pointing to an abort, which must have been especially hard on Duke and Young who had already undocked and were orbiting the moon when they got word of it. It’s one thing to be told your moonlanding has been cancelled without having the lunar surface just outside the window when you’re told. But after a risk assessment that delayed their lunar landing by some six hours, Orion was given a “Go” for descent.

And so began what A Man on the Moon author Andrew Chaikin calls “The John and Charlie Show.”

Reserved wasn’t a word that could be applied to either of them: Young’s wit was as dry as desert sand and he was known to speak his mind, while Duke was incapable of playing it cool. (And who could blame them? They’d just landed on the moon!)

Watch Charlie Duke talk about landing on the moon:

Speaking of the landing last Friday (see video above), Duke said, “The engine was stopped, the dust cleared, and I hollered out, ‘Houston, Old Orion is finally here. Fantastic!’ And that was the first of about 900 times I used the word ‘fantastic’ on my three days on the moon…We were like two little kids at Christmas. We were so excited.”

Listen to the Apollo 16 lunar landing radio transmission:

At 10.57 a.m. Houston time and suitably space-suited up, the hatch was opened and as Commander, Young ambled out first. “Hey, John,” Duke called from behind him. “Hurry up!” And Duke’s first words as he stood on the moon? “Hot dawg, this is great! That first step on the lunar surface is super!” And it wasn’t just him. Picking up an instrument that had been as heavy as lead back on earth but was now easy to carry in one-sixth gravity, John Young said gleefully, “Look at that, Charlie! Look at me carrying it! I’m carrying it over my shoulder! Ha ha ha.”

For the next three days and night, Duke and Young lived it up on the lunar surface. They got the Lunar Rover – a battery powered car – up to eleven miles an hour, and are still the Guinness World Record title holders for the fastest speed record of any wheeled vehicle on the moon. They took the famous “jump salute” photo (above), Duke making a show of trying to blow the moon dust off his camera. They held their own “Moon Olympics” during which Duke fell over no less than six times, seriously winded himself, nearly comprised his life-giving backpack and annoying both his commander and Mission Control. (Although even at the best of times, Duke looks awkward on the moon, half-falling, half-skipping across the surface.) Young wrecked an experiment by pulling a power cable loose with his foot, and in what he calls his “most embarrassing moment” Duke dropped a $10 million dollar piece of equipment live on camera. (Watch him do it in the video above.) “I thought I could get away with it,” he said on Friday, narrating a video of the event. “But then I looked over and saw that the TV [camera] was pointed right at me.” On returning to the LEM after they last moonwalk, Young said to Houston, “Man, you don’t know how much fun this has been.”

“The Dust of My Life”

Last Friday, Duke spoke of his lunar trip as “a fantastic adventure.” During the Q&A session, an audience member asked him how he felt now when he looked up at the moon, and he said proud of NASA and proud of his country, and that he wants to go back. But the evidence suggests that he didn’t always look upon his NASA career with such love. Some years ago he told Chaikin that his lunar landing was “the dust of his life” and that his greatest achievement was the Christian ministry he’d set up with his wife Dotty in the years after it, partly as a response to the downward spiral of alcoholism he’d slipped into after leaving NASA. He certainly wasn’t alone; many of the astronauts found life wanting upon their return to earth, for what could possibly top a trip to the moon? What do I do now? But more recently Duke told Moondust author Andrew Smith (are all good space authors called Andrew?!) that the message had been garbled in a bad analogy, and that what he’d meant was Apollo was just one part of his life, and rightly so. “If your whole life revolved around something you did thirty years ago,” Duke said, “I think your ego would be effected tremendously.” (See Buzz Aldrin for plenty of examples of this.) Sitting there listening to him last week, I certainly saw a man more than happy to talk about his trip to the moon.

(Incidentally, Duke inspired the writing of Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, my favorite Apollo book and one-time Richard & Judy Book Club pick. Smith had been sent to interview Duke for a magazine feature and during their meeting, the news broke that another moonwalker, Pete Conrad, had been fatally injured in a motorbike accident. On learning this, Duke said quietly, “Now there’s only nine of us” – a phrase that hit Smith like a sucker punch to the gut, and sent him off on a search for the other eight.)

Something New

Gearing up to go to Glasgow, I was excited about meeting a real, live moonwalker, but not sure what to expect. After all, hadn’t I already heard it all? Hadn’t I read every book, seen every movie, bought every documentary box-set? Hadn’t I made more visits to Kennedy Space Center than I care to count? As much as I wanted a signed picture, was there anything new he could tell me?

Charlie Duke watches footage of his Apollo 16 crew capsule returning to earth.

The short answer is an emphatic yes! I hadn’t known, for example, that while getting ready to leave the LEM, Duke had battled with a wayward globule of orange juice that had escaped from a valve inside his helmet, or that to one side of his visor was a chewy chocolate bar he could snack on while he moonwalked, or that the blackness of space was really – totally – black; in space it is always day, and so no stars are visible. His description of the lunar view of earth gave me goosebumps. I’d always thought it looked like a setting sun to them, hanging low in the horizon, but in fact for Duke and Young the earth hung like a glittering snow-globe directly above their heads. And while I’ve heard countless facts and stats about how little computer memory the entire Apollo ran on, hearing Duke himself say that the 8GB memory card he bought for his digital camera last week has 100,000 times the memory of his LEM brings a  new weight.

The best moment? When Duke offhandedly mentioned, “my boss – Chuck Yeager.” And the worst? When an Apollo bubble of mine got unceremoniously and unexpectedly burst.

I’ve long loved the story of how Charlie decided to leave a photo of his family on the moon. A family friend took a portrait, and on the back he wrote, “This is the family of Astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon on April 20, 1972.” During their last moonwalk, he dropped the photo onto the dust and took a photo of it (above), later calling the gesture, “a special moment.” This story had always warmed the coldest corners of my heart, especially when I thought of how the photo must still be up there, undisturbed, like their boot prints and Rover tyre tracks. But it’s not. During the talk, Duke disclosed that almost as soon as he dropped the photo, the plastic covering around it began to melt (it was in the sun’s glare) and in all likelihood had disintegrated by the time they took off on their journey home.

[VERY SAD FACE.]

The NASA Spirit

My favorite Apollo 16 story, while we’re on the subject, has – strangely – nothing at all to do with the moon, or even being in space. A few weeks before launch, Ken Mattingly went out to the launch pad where the Saturn V stood, patiently waiting, and rode the service elevator up to the third stage, or near the top of the mammoth moonrocket. There he found an open hatch inside of it, a busy technician. Startled by Mattingly’s sudden appearance, he shouted, “Who are you? Get out of here!” but changed his tune once Mattingly explained who he was: one of the men who would ride this monster into space. “You know,” the technician said, “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for you. But I can tell you this: it won’t fail because of what I do.”

And that, Mattingly realized, was how America had won the Space Race and its space agency had carried men to the moon. It because 400,000 people had said to themselves, Whatever happens, it won’t fail because of something I do.

That, in a sentence, is the NASA spirit. If they had a winning motto, it would easily beat “Failure is not an option” (which was never actually said) to the title. It is this outlook on life, also encapsulated by Apollo 17‘s Gene Cernan’s line, “Take the word impossible out of the dictionary” that gives Apollo such appeal. We can do anything. We can go anywhere. We can achieve our dreams.

A large section of the audience in the Carnegie Lecture theatre last weekend were young children and teenagers, enraptured by Charlie Duke’s amazing story. I hope they – and you – take its message to heart. And if you’re looking for some inspirational bedtime stories to tell your kids, why not tell them of the men who went to the moon?

In other news, flying home from Glasgow to Cork I was forced to not only board a tiny plane with propellers – propellers, people! – but sit in a jump seat backed up against the cockpit, or facing the wrong way. I don’t like take off or landing at the best of times, but doing them while facing in the opposite direction and feeling faintly motion sick was not a pleasant experience. Of course, as soon as I got home and voiced my complaints, my mother pointed out the irony of me wanting to go into space but not being able to sit backwards on a commercial plane. Yes, Mum. But to go into space? I’d pay any price.

Click here to read all my astronuts posts.

Thanks again to Ben Johncock for a ticket to A Walk with Destiny.

Images not taken by the author appear courtesy of NASA.

4 thoughts on “Moonwalker: Meeting Apollo Astronaut Charlie Duke [Squeals!] Part II

  1. G. Smith says:

    I just learned of Duke’s leaving the family portrait (and I’ve been a huge moon freak/geek since Apollo 11 when I was 11)… and despite the melting you mentioned, I’m still misty-eyed at the significance of who and what he thought important… that among the billions of dollars of eventual scientific trash, he felt his family deserved a place among the stars (albeit a brief one…) To me… that’s heroic and most impressive…

  2. Brendan Reinicke says:

    Catherine, I enjoyed reading this. having flown from Denmark, tomorrow, I hopefully will have the honor of meeting Charlie Duke in Pontefract UK. Like you I’m awe inspired by those missions. Also like you I’m Irish 🙂

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