San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

April 8th, 2009
Apollo moonwalker comes to Texas State

Charles Duke speaks at Texas State. Photo by Sean Wardwell.

Managing Editor

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.


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0 thoughts on “Apollo moonwalker comes to Texas State

  1. Originally, I had plans to attend this event. Charlie Duke is a personal hero, and I was really looking forward to it. Thank you for the story, which I had hoped would lessen the sting of having been unable to attend, in the end. Unfortunately, it has only aroused my disappointment at having missed this unique opportunity. Nevertheless, it was good coverage, and I do appreciate it. Thanks again.

  2. Ray (Nick Ramus)

    Did you really attend? Where did you sit? In which building was it held?

    You are quite the social bee in San Marcos.

    Don’t forget you have your deadly conduct trial in early October and you are suppose to be keeping a low profile. The fake physical therapy sessions are OK, but you aren’t suppose to be blogging.

    Your handlers aren’t happy with you.

  3. Chuck, you require the services of a professional mental health Ph.D. I am not licensed to venture a guess as to your illness but it appears to be major. Please seek help for your and your family’s sake.

  4. Ray (Nick Ramus)

    Thanks for the guidance, but don’t forget about your deadly conduct trial in early October.

    Your handlers are not happy seeing you blogging when they advised you to keep a low profile.

    I know the blogging gives you an outlet, but don’t forget about your deadly conduct trial in early October. Your blogging can be used against you.

    And be sure to use your cane everywhere you go…not just to physical therapy. Using the cane everywhere will make your disability claim seem more plausible.

  5. A number of years ago I was an attorney in a compatancy hearing in which a person thought his mother and Judge Howard Warner were the same people, never mind his mother was an elderly black woman, and Judge Warner is a middle aged white man….

    O’Dell is beginning to remind me of that person.

  6. You know what this reminds me of? Another thread that might degrade into a useless O’Dell debate. Don’t rise to the bait. He’s obviously a sick and sad man, but that doesn’t mean he has to be engaged.

    On topic, however, I really enjoyed this story. Amazing that a man that walked on the moon lives so close. Wardwell obviously loves the space program, because this was written with a great deal of respect.

  7. Not Again, understood. When I was seven years of age I wanted to join the air force so I could transition into the space program. I collected college class manuals seeking out an educational pathway to aeronautical engineering for the purpose of being on the first manned flight to Mars, so was the year 1960.

  8. Thanks, and I do love the space program. Getting to cover this was a real treat.

    Ray, when I was a kid in the early 80s, I sent NASA a letter extolling the virtues of making me America’s first child astronaut, and that we would beat the Russians to this important milestone.

    NASA never got back to me, but I remain a fan.

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