Charles Duke speaks at Texas State. Photo by Sean Wardwell.
By SEAN WARDWELL
On April 16, 1972, Apollo 16 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center off the eastern coast of Florida, carrying three astronauts to the Descartes Highlands of the moon. One of them, Charles Duke, came to Texas State Tuesday to share that experience.
“I’m a storyteller,” Duke said, “so you aren’t going to get a real technical briefing tonight.”
And what a story he had to tell.
Speaking before a packed room of students, Boy Scouts and people who came from out of town to hear him, Duke regaled the audience with humorous stories from his lunar mission and his NASA career.
“In a lot of the films you see the crew waving to the crowd,” Duke said, “and everyone said, ‘Well, there they go, launching to fame and fortune.’ Well, fame is fleeting in the astronaut program. Everytime I was on TV I had my helmet on and nobody could tell what I looked like.”
Duke was born in Charlotte, NC, and now makes his home in New Braunfels. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1957, but opted to enter the United States Air Force, which had no service academy at that point.
After flight training, Duke served with several fighter interceptor units, flying aircraft such as the F-101 Voodoo and F-104 Starfighter, before applying to the space program at the behest of his then commander, Gen. Chuck Yeager.
“Nobody joined for fame,” Duke said. “We joined for adventure.”
Duke was part of the fifth group of astronauts NASA brought in. Among his peers in the group were Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, of Apollo 13 fame, and several other astronauts that filled positions in both the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
After lifting off, Duke reflected on seeing the Earth from space for the first time.
“We made it into orbit,” Duke said, “Everything checked out, we’re over Australia, and we accelerated to 25,000 miles-per-hour and we’re on our way to the moon … I was just floating around, looking out the window, when into this window comes the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my life. Floating into that window, 16,000 miles away, is the whole circle of the Earth.”
Continued Duke, “We could see the Arctic Circle, down across Canada, the U.S., Mexico to Central America.”
While the space program was stressful, Duke seemed to find time to appreciate the lighter moments of space travel.
“I was a Lieutenant Colonel,” Duke said,”and I got paid like every other Lieutenant Colonel. A trip to the moon is a little extra though.”
Continued Duke, “A trip to the moon, in military terminology, is TDY, or temporary duty, and they paid a per diem. Back in those days the per diem rate was $25 a day. I actually filled out a travel voucher.”
Joked Duke, “That’s $275 bucks.” NASA whittled down the per diem to $13, however, after factoring in shelter and food while on the moon.
The travel paperwork Duke filled out simply said, “Kennedy (Space Center) – Moon, Moon – Pacific Ocean.”
Duke spent nearly three days on the lunar surface with mission commander John Young, while Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly orbited above them. Duke went on to describe some antics on the lunar surface, as a film of him on the moon played in the background.
Many scenes featured him falling or losing his footing on the dusty, low gravity of the moon. However, Duke emphasized that what they were doing was dangerous work, and if something went wrong, almost certainly fatal.
When asked by an audience member about the risks associated with going to the moon, Duke responded, “There was no rescue. No other vehicle was on the launch pad to come and rescue us. You just took your chances on Apollo.”
However, Duke had faith in the equipment and in his colleagues at NASA, yet the possibility of being stranded on the moon was always on people’s minds.
“Sooner or later, you punch the button and the engine doesn’t light,” Duke said. “You go through all your emergency procedures, and you’re stuck on the moon. Our plan was to power down, make it (Lunar Module) last as long as possible, maybe someone would come up with a good idea.”
Thankfully, nobody had to. Apollo 16 lifted off from the moon safely, and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The flight was Duke’s first and last. He went on to consult for NASA before retiring.
NASA ended the moon program with Apollo 17. Duke said the other astronauts were disappointed because three more flights were in the pipeline and the equipment was already purchased. The last time anyone walked on the moon was Dec. 14, 1972.
Duke spent some of his presentation taking about how far science has advanced since his landing, pointing out that his Blackberry is far more powerful than the computer he used to navigate to the moon. He was also adamant that while the race to the moon began in the political field, the scientific achievements gained by and through the Apollo program far outweigh any political agenda, and that the costs were worth it.
“Apollo started out as a political decision – beat the Russians” Duke said, “But, it became one of the greatest scientific investigations in human history. All of the technological things we enjoy today, not only communications and computers, but other things, like manufacturing processes, metallurgy, medical technology, medicines, information systems, you name it. All of that technology was rooted in the Apollo Program.”
Now, Duke gives speeches and is active in ministry with his wife, Dorothy. He hopes that space exploration continues.
“I would like to see us go back to the moon, establish a moon base like the one we have in Antarctica today, and that’s what NASA’s plan is,” Duke said.
The event was held as part of Texas State’s celebration on the centennial of Lyndon B. Johnson’s birth. Johnson was an ardent supporter of America’s space program, serving as head of the National Space Council. The lecture was sponsored by the Texas State Department of History and Phi Alpha Theta. An award from the University Lectures Committee made the lecture possible.
Listen to the audio from the event below.