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Fly Me to the Moon
On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and man’s first lunar walk, Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke reflects on his role in that mission and his own journey to the moon several years later

One of the great things about meeting Charlie Duke is the sense of awe he inspires. A natural leader and bona fide rocket scientist, Duke exudes the type of quiet confidence you’d expect from a man who’s done something only 11 other people in all of history have accomplished. At the same time, he beams with childlike excitement while taking you on a mental journey, reliving in vivid detail all of the events that took place on April 21, 1972, as if it were yesterday.

It’s an endearing trait, this amalgamation of worldliness and innocence, and it speaks volumes about the era in which Duke came of age. In the early 1970s, when he was in his mid-30s, the video game Pong was considered a technological marvel. It was also a period when brave men like Duke—individuals who had the “right stuff”—looked to the stars and allowed their dreams to soar.

Despite the fear of the unknown and the knowledge of the millions of things that could go wrong, Duke pursued his dream with focus and passion. And on a date he will never forget, his dream became a reality. It’s the date Charlie Duke stepped out of this world and into history.

In May of 1961, President John Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and issued a bold proclamation: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Many thought the idea was preposterous, including Charles M. “Charlie” Duke Jr., a 25-year-old U.S. Air Force fighter interceptor pilot from South Carolina. At the time of Kennedy’s historic speech, Duke was stationed at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and he was having a blast. He spent his days flying a F-86D fighter jet and his nights tooling around in a baby blue Porsche 1600—that’s when he wasn’t doing the shenanigans that 25-year-old men do. When Duke heard Kennedy’s announcement, he thought the goal was exciting but probably not feasible. Even though the president’s statement came the same month that the United States had successfully launched Alan Shepard into space, Duke knew that a 15-minute suborbital flight was a long way, both literally and figuratively, from landing on the moon. But eight years later, Duke would become a central figure in the first lunar landing. He was working as the capsule communicator (capcom) for Apollo 11, and his thick Southern drawl emanated from millions of television sets as awestruck viewers around the globe followed Neil Armstrong’s descent to the moon’s surface. A few years afterward, Duke himself would strap inside a six-and-a-half-million-pound rocket filled with liquid oxygen, jet fuel, and liquid hydrogen and blast off into space. Three days later, the man who once thought a lunar landing was close to impossible would become the youngest person to set foot on the moon.

Charlie Duke grew up in Lancaster, South Carolina, a small town about 45 miles south of Charlotte, North Carolina. Even as a kid Duke knew he wanted to serve his country. His father had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and war stories stoked Duke’s sense of patriotism. In 1953 Duke entered the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and following graduation, he joined the air force as a lieutenant with the goal of becoming the best pilot in the force.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in October of 1957, Duke was in flight school at Spence Air Base in Georgia. Sputnik’s success upstaged the United States and ushered in not only the space age but also the space race, a technological and political battle of firsts. The Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin on a flight in April of 1961 that lasted 108 minutes and circled the earth slightly more than once, making him the first person to fly in space and leaving the United States, once again, feeling like a bridesmaid. A few weeks later, the United States answered with its own manned space flight, but despite the significance of Alan Shepard’s achievement, it was still second place.

In 1959, after completing flight school, Duke was sent to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. When he and fellow pilots heard Kennedy’s 1961 address committing to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, they didn’t believe it was possible. The technological and engineering obstacles to achieve such a feat seemed insurmountable. But Duke didn’t give the idea much thought; there was a more pressing issue on his mind: He had one more year left in Germany, and he was wondering what he should do at the end of his tour. He could extend for another year, but the air force was strongly encouraging young officers to earn as much education as possible, and the idea of getting a master’s degree was enticing.

By the spring of 1962, Duke had made up his mind. Instead of extending his time in Germany, he would head back to the United States to pursue a graduate degree in aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was a decision that would change the course of his life. “I was really having a good time in Germany,” Duke recounts. “But if I had extended for a year, I never would have gone to the moon.”

Not long after Duke arrived at MIT, President Kennedy took his lunar mandate directly to the American people. On September 12, 1962, in a packed football stadium at Rice University, Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

As the United States tackled the technological obstacles of a lunar landing, Duke found himself stumbling into the space race. The MIT Instrumentation Lab had been awarded the contract to build the Apollo guidance and navigation system, and Duke was intrigued by the project. He produced a statistical analysis of the Apollo telescope as part of his master’s thesis, and while doing the work, Duke met several astronauts. “These guys were pumped up,” Duke recalls. “I’d never seen anybody so excited about a job in my life.” Duke asked one of the astronauts, a former test pilot named Charlie Bassett, how someone would go about getting such an amazing job. “Go to test pilot school,” said Bassett, “and then you might have a chance.” While still working on his thesis, Duke applied to the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in California. To his astonishment, he was accepted.

After two years of academia, Duke was eager to get back in the air. He reported for test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in July of 1964, just a few weeks after earning his master of science degree. Southern California seemed light-years away from Boston, and when Duke stepped out into the baking heat, he wondered if he’d survive living in the middle of the Mojave. But that thought quickly evaporated when he saw the assemblage of fighter jets lining the base’s ramp. Duke felt like a kid who’d been handed the keys to a toy store. If any ambivalence remained, it immediately vanished when Duke met his commandant, a steely-eyed ace fighter pilot who was the first person to break the sound barrier, Colonel Chuck Yeager.

For the next year, Duke learned an entirely new set of skills. His time at Edwards was much different from his training at Moody. Test pilot school was about precision flying and high-altitude control techniques. Duke’s favorite was the “zoom maneuver,” a stomach-churning climb in an F-104 Starfighter to 90,000 feet, an altitude that offered Duke a clear view of the curvature of the earth. While at Edwards, Duke was part supersonic pilot, part guinea pig. He was subjected to stress tests and anti-gravity training, and often flew training missions while connected to EKGs and respirators that sent data to a small recorder attached to his flight suit.

During this time, Duke was also experiencing another brand-new situation: family life. In March of 1965, Charlie and his wife, Dotty, whom he’d married while in graduate school, welcomed their first son, Charles III. Duke felt he was living the dream—he was a husband and a father, and training to become an astronaut.

Upon graduating from test pilot school, Duke was assigned to stay on as an instructor. This was fine with him; he loved flying, and working for an American hero like Yeager was an honor. But part of Duke was still yearning to be an astronaut—that was the reason he’d gone to test pilot school in the first place. By the time Duke graduated, NASA had already selected another group of astronauts, Group 4, and it was unknown if, and when, another selection would be made. Then, on a Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1965, Duke glanced at the front page of the Los Angeles Times and saw an article detailing NASA’s search for a new group of astronauts. Duke was one of 5,000 who applied and one of less than 150 selected for further consideration. After a series of tests and interviews, he was accepted as one of 19 men who would make up NASA’s Astronaut Group 5.

Duke arrived in Houston in the spring of 1966. The 19 men of Group 5 brought the total number of NASA astronauts to 53, and the chance that any one of them would actually walk on the moon still seemed slim. While taking classes in propulsion systems, electrical systems, and geology, Duke also worked as part of the flight control team on the final two missions of the Gemini program, the lead-up to the future Apollo missions. The final Gemini mission, Gemini XII, launched on November 11, 1966. It was on this mission that a rookie astronaut named Buzz Aldrin performed the world’s first successful space walk, a huge accomplishment for NASA. All eyes, including Duke’s, were now focused on the moon.

Tragically, success was soon followed by disaster. On January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 was in place for a launch rehearsal test, a routine procedure that preceded every mission. During the test a spark in the spacecraft ignited the pressurized oxygen in the command module cabin. The ensuing fire killed all three crew members and presented a major setback for NASA. At the time of the disaster, Duke was back in his hometown of Lancaster accepting the local Jaycees’ Young Man of the Year award. He was pulled away from the microphone and told about the tragic accident, a sobering moment that reminded him and his fellow astronauts of the immense risks involved in their profession.

The Apollo 1 tragedy put NASA significantly behind schedule. While the goal of sending a man to the moon by the end of the decade still remained, the feasibility of such a feat seemed more daunting than ever. Duke was now working on the propulsion systems for the lunar module and the Saturn rocket, the launch vehicles that would propel the Apollo missions into space. He was also traveling the country with fellow astronauts as part of a public relations campaign to build support for the space program. Rocket scientist one day, featured speaker at the Georgia Sweet Potato Festival the next.

Over the following two years, NASA overcame a host of technical challenges, and by June of 1969, a series of successful Apollo missions had brought the United States closer and closer to the moon. Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, came within less than 10 miles of the moon’s surface. Duke was part of the Apollo 10 support crew, responsible for the lunar module activation and checkout systems. He also served as capcom for the practiced descent towards the moon.

In July of 1969, Duke was genuinely surprised when Neil Armstrong, the commander of Apollo 11, asked him and the entire Apollo 10 descent and landing team to help with the mission. This meant Duke would be the capcom for Apollo 11 during its descent and landing on the moon.

On July 20, 1969, an estimated 600 million people stared at their television sets and watched history in the making. As Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, in the lunar module Eagle, descended toward the moon’s surface, Duke’s voice transmitted data to the crew and to televisions all around the world. At 3,000 feet above the surface, he said the words everyone had been waiting for: “You are go for landing.” At 1,000 feet before touching down, Armstrong noticed the Eagle descending toward a boulder field and realized that finding a safe place to land would require using up precious fuel. Armstrong held the Eagle’s altitude at 350 feet and flew horizontally over the boulders until he found a smooth area surrounded by craters. Moments later Duke announced, “Sixty seconds,” meaning one minute’s worth of fuel remained before an abort order would be called. At 40 feet above the surface, Aldrin said, “Picking up some dust,” and a few seconds later, Duke announced, “Thirty seconds.” Finally, after several tense seconds that seemed to last for hours, Armstrong’s voice echoed across the globe: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Duke responded with palpable relief: “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

“We were literally holding our breath,” Duke admits. “I’d never felt such tension in my life.” After a debriefing of the relief crew at Mission Control, Duke and his colleagues had a chance to celebrate. “We went off to the press conference, then had a few beers, and then I went home to watch the first step on the moon with my family,” he says. It was then, sitting in his living room in Texas, that Duke processed the sheer magnitude of the event: Less than 10 years had elapsed between the first manned space flight and the moon landing, and the accomplishment was nothing short of stunning. Duke’s role in helping the space program get to that point had been significant, but he was eager to move beyond being part of the supporting cast—he wanted to take his own steps on the moon.

When Duke was selected as a member of the backup crew for Apollo 13, he couldn’t contain his excitement. Being part of the backup crew meant an astronaut would move to the prime crew three missions later, which would put him on Apollo 16. He was finally getting the chance he had dreamed of since his days at MIT. For the next two years, Duke spent more than 60 hours a week preparing for the Apollo 16 mission, which was to include three days of experiments on the moon. Since one of the major objectives of the mission was to inspect and collect materials, he received extensive geological training.

On April 16, 1972, Duke, along with Commander John W. Young and Command Module Pilot Thomas K. Mattingly II, were strapped in and ready for liftoff. Apollo 16 was a go. Even with all the excitement, Duke was thinking about his family: his wife, Dotty; seven-year-old Charles; and his younger son, Tom. It was tradition for each astronaut to carry a Personal Preference Kit (PPK), a small bag containing personal mementos, on missions, and Duke chose to include a few small nylon flags representing the United States, South Carolina, and Georgia, as well as two silver medallions commemorating the 25th anniversary of the air force. But one item, a small snapshot, was of particular significance. Taken by NASA photographer Ludy Benjamin, the photo showed Duke, Dotty, and their two boys in the backyard of their home in El Lago, Texas. On the back, Duke had written: “This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon on April 21, 1972.” The photo was headed on a one-way ride.

As Apollo 16 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center, the vibration inside the spacecraft was so intense that Duke wondered if something was wrong. The ascent seemed excruciatingly slow; it took eight seconds for the craft to clear the launch tower. Data sent back to Mission Control showed Young’s heartbeat at a calm rate of 70 beats per minute; Duke’s heart was pounding at 144. But everything with the spacecraft was normal, and eventually Duke relaxed and settled into his responsibilities for the 240,000-mile journey to the moon.

To help liven the long hours of space travel, Duke played a mix of country music that his friend, Texas disc jockey Bill Bailey, put together for the trip with instructions not to listen to the tapes until the crew was in space. “So we plug one of these in and hear, ‘Hey, Charlie, this is Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Thank you for taking us to the moon and hope you like this next half hour,’” Duke says. “They did a whole show. And next was Merle Haggard, and he did the same thing. They had done the show just for us.” Other musicians included Buck Owens, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed. All of the stars mentioned Duke and the other crew members by name and threw in a few jokes about being taken into space. “We listened to those tapes a lot,” Duke says.

Three days after launching from Kennedy Space Center, Duke and Young entered the lunar landing module Orion and separated from Mattingly and the command module to begin their descent to the moon’s surface. When they were on the back side of the moon, one hour before beginning their descent to the lunar surface, Mattingly noticed a problem with the command module’s secondary control system. The command module was the crew’s ride home, and any issue with it was reason to postpone, and possibly terminate, the mission. It looked like Duke and Young might not land on the moon after all. “Your heart can sink to the bottom of your boots even at zero gravity,” Duke says.

Four hours later, word came from Mission Control that a solution had been found, and Young and Duke were given the go for landing. The Orion settled in an area called the Descartes region, selected by NASA for its volcanic formations and abundance of collectible materials. Duke voiced his enthusiasm to officials back at NASA: “Wowww! Whoa man! Old Orion is finally here, Houston! Fantastic!”

It would be hours before Young and Duke would be allowed to exit the module. Full of excitement, his mind racing, Duke took a sleeping pill in order to rest for the following day’s exploration of the lunar surface. The next morning, when the time came to leave the Orion, Young descended the ladder and made a small speech. But Duke didn’t hesitate. “Well, it wasn’t up to the lunar module pilot to make any speech,” he says. “So I just jumped off the ladder and thought, hey, I’m on the moon!” In that moment Duke became the 10th man to walk on the moon, and at age 36, the youngest.

Collectively, Duke and Young spent 71 hours on the lunar surface and gathered more than 200 pounds of moon rocks. Just before leaving to rejoin Mattingly in the command module, Duke placed the family photo he’d brought along on a pristine spot near the lunar module. “Then I bent over and took a picture of it,” Duke says. “It became an iconic picture. It’s the only family photograph ever left on the moon.”

On April 27, after 11 days in space, the command module of Apollo 16 splashed down into the Pacific Ocean. Less than an hour later, the ship and the crew were retrieved by the USS Ticonderoga. Duke, Young, and Mattingly received a hero’s welcome and spent the next two months traveling the country on a victory tour.

Duke retired from NASA in December of 1975 and moved with his family to New Braunfels, Texas, a city located just outside San Antonio. There Duke started a Coors distributorship, which he sold for a considerable profit a couple of years later. “From moon to money,” he quips.

But for Duke, money didn’t buy happiness. He felt something was missing in his life, and in 1978, he became a committed Christian. A few years later, along with Dotty, he started the Duke Ministry for Christ. His faith has been a guiding force in his life ever since.

These days, at age 84, Duke is a motivational speaker and self-professed “lousy” golfer. He and Dotty still live in New Braunfels, but travel frequently for speaking engagements and ministry work. And even though it’s been nearly five decades since he excitedly jumped off a ladder and onto the surface of the moon, he’s still passionate about space travel and hopes NASA makes good on its pledge to return to the moon by 2024 to test the technologies and resources required for deep space exploration. Duke says he’d go back in a second if offered the chance, and just in case NASA is interested, he says he can still pass the physical. “Exploration is in our blood, and has been since the dawn of time,” he says. “So let’s go see what’s out there.”

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