Listen: Astronaut Charlie Duke speaks to Aaron Wright and Erin Marsh. Above: Charlie Duke at Mission Control, Houston, during the 1969 first moon landing of Apollo 11.
Charlie Duke, an astronaut on the Apollo 16 mission of 1972, was the 10th man to walk on the moon. He also had a key role in the historic first moon landing in 1969, as the “Capsule Communicator” – speaking to the crew from Mission Control in Houston, Texas (pictured above). In 2012 he spoke to Aaron Wright and Erin Marsh on Hope Breakfast, about his moon experiences, and his Christian faith. Below is the transcript of their conversation.
Aaron: It is an amazing privilege to speak to someone who has walked on the moon and been in space several times. It’s only a small handful of people who can boast such a thing, and it’s very exciting to have Charles Duke, or Charlie, as we call him, on the phone with us this morning. The 10th man to walk on the moon. It’s a privilege to speak to you. Thank you.
Charlie: Thank you very much. It’s a delight to be here and speaking from Melbourne, a beautiful day and I look forward to our interview.
Erin: Well, Charlie, I have heard a rumor that you actually littered on the moon and by that, I mean you left a photo of your family. Is this true?
Charlie: We did. I did. Our boys were young at the time. One was almost five, and one was just turning seven. And to get them involved in the excitement of the adventure of their dad going to the moon, we decided to take a photo in our backyard and of our family, the four of us. And on the back, we had written, “This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth, who landed on the moon on the 20th of April, 1972.” And so I dropped that photo on the moon and took a picture of the picture. It’s turned out to be in a lot of Apollo pictorial books over the years.
Aaron: Tell us, please, what was it like when you walked on the moon?
Charlie: Well, let me describe the emotional side of it. I think that’s the thing that people really want to know. First, it was awesomely exciting. We were in a place that nobody had ever been before. And so you’re standing there in the surface, and you’re just in wonder of it all with the beauty of the lunar surface, the stark contrast between the gray of the moon and the blackness of space. An awesome feeling that nobody’s ever been here before. And the excitement about it. You trained three years, and so now we’re finally here. And so I was very excited, emotional about it, and yet, even though it was a hostile environment, I felt very much at home on the lunar surface.
Erin: That’s so cool. Speaking about three years of training, I mean, what kind of training do you do to become an astronaut? Like I’ve seen Apollo 13, and there was a thing that kind of spins you around like a spin cycle. Like, did you have to do a lot of that?
Charlie: That’s a centrifuge, and we rarely did that. The only time we needed to experience the G force was once during reentry where it was seven and a half times gravity. And Apollo had an abort that would take you to 20 Gs. So we got into the centrifuge to take us to 15 Gs. 20 Gs is very, very difficult on the human body, and so they didn’t want to take us up to there. I said, well, if you guys are going to abort and you get 20 Gs, that’s just tough, but they didn’t take us out, but that was just very minor.
The main training was geology training. We did a lot of geology to learn about the rocks of the moon and to be able to describe. We did a lot of simulator, learning how to fall out of the spacecraft and that was thousands of hours in the simulator. And then finally we did what we call lunar surface training, which was to learn to deploy the experiments that we were going to have on the moon.
Erin: Actually, I need ask you this question. Often people will say, “Look at this calculator. This has more technology in it than they did on the spacecraft.” Is that true?
Charlie: That is true.
Charlie: Today my iPhone, which has a 16 gig memory, that works out to 200,000 times the memory of our Apollo computer.
Erin: Wow. That’s incredible.
Charlie: Yeah. We had ADK memory in our computer, but the software engineers who wrote the software, they were at MIT, and they did an incredible job of packaging all of these programs that we needed for landing alignment of our navigation system and the liftoff and rendezvous. All of that was packaged into ADK. Looking back now, it was an incredible feat.
Aaron: Absolutely. Yes. When you’re on the moon with all that technology, and really, the fact that we have the ability to land on the moon is just amazing at the time we did as well. When you turned your head though and looked back at planet Earth, what did you think? Stripping back all our technology and all that stuff going on around you, what did you think?
Charlie: Well, let me first say, we landed at a place on the moon which was called the Descartes Highlands, which is in the central mountains of the moon, which puts the Earth directly over your head. So when I was standing on the moon, I could not see the Earth because as I looked up, I looked at the inside of my helmet.
“in the book of Job it says, ‘When God made the earth, He suspended it upon nothing.’ And that’s exactly how it looks… just hung in the blackness of space.”
But I had a beautiful view of Earth as we orbited prior to landing and after landing. We had about 24 hours in orbit before we landed and about 24 after. So you could see the Earth rise above the lunar surface, and it was a half Earth in the sky. So you saw the polar ice caps, the clouds in between, and a lot of blue ocean. Rarely could you make out a landmass from the lunar distance of what, like Europe or Asia or anything like that. It was beautiful. It just suspended in the blackness of space. The two verses come to mind in scripture. In Isaiah, the 40th chapter, God says, it says, “God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth.” Of course, we didn’t see God, but we did see the circle of the earth. And then in the book of Job, I think its 26th chapter it says, “When God made the earth, He suspended it upon nothing.” And that’s exactly how it looks to you as you look back at the Earth, just hung in the blackness of space.
Aaron: What is NASA working on now in the area of space exploration?
Well, there are two parts of NASA. The unmanned program, the robotics, that seems to be robust, it’s going well. We just landed the Rover Curiosity on Mars. There are other unmanned satellites in various parts of the universe studying various planets. That seems to be going well. The manned program at NASA is sort of dead in the water, it seems to me. We have no real focus to develop a manned spacecraft to take the shuttle place on any immediate schedule. We’re slowly building one called the Orion, which is, I best describe it as Apollo on steroids. There will be a new launch vehicle called the SLS, the Space Launch System. But that’s 2017, and there’s no real mission for this other than just to take astronauts back and forth to the space station. So until that’s developed, the U.S. astronauts are taken to space by buying a seat on the Russian Soyuz, which is a sad indictment I think, of our space program.
We don’t have any, there was a moon program, but it was canceled in 2010. So we don’t have any real exciting program on the horizon that I see. There’s a number of commercial ventures trying to develop a manned spacecraft basically just to stay in Earth orbit and to go to the space station. But whilst one or two of those will be successful, they are a long way from getting what I call man-rated taking astronauts into space.
Aaron: It’s a shame. It’s a really sad thing, because I think just like back in the day, I really think you’d have people glued to the television watching and wondering what’s happening. And I’ve got to say, when you’re launching off and when you’re on the moon and making these really dangerous moves, is that when the belief in God sort of stirs up in astronauts? Is that a conversation you guys have when you’re up there?
Charlie: No. Actually, it did not. We were focused on the adventure of it. The technical side, the operational side. I can’t recall having any significant encounter or thinking about God on the moon. It wasn’t a spiritual experience for me. It wasn’t a philosophical experience. That all developed six years later for me. Now one astronaut on Apollo 15, Jim Irwin, he was a committed believer before he went and he did quote some scripture on some of the psalms and saw God’s handiwork. Gene Cernan said, after you have an experience like that, you got to believe there’s a God. Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 had communion on the lunar surface. So there was some spiritual aspect to it but not on our flight.
Erin: So tell us about your journey to faith then.
Charlie: Well, let me try to do this succinctly. I was successful in my military career as an astronaut test pilot. I had achieved the ultimate flight, if you will, of landing on the moon. And after Apollo was over, I was now 37 years old and the thought occurred to me, what are you going to do now with the rest of your life? That drive that took me to the moon was still there. Still unsatisfied. I really didn’t have any peace in my life. I can’t say I was depressed, but I was always searching for a real purpose. I believed in God. I was a churchgoer, but Jesus was not lord of my life. My marriage was in trouble. I was a military drill instructor dad, so I was very hard on my kids. But my wife came to faith in 1975 through a program at our little parish church called Faith Alive. And I watched her change and two and a half years later on April 1978 I gave my heart to Jesus after a weekend Bible study at a local tennis club actually. And that started my walk.
“My marriage was healed. My family was healed. The Lord gave me the ability to put Him first in my life.”
I began to read the scriptures, devour the scriptures. God, His word is living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword and judges the attitudes of our hearts. So as I read the Scripture, God began to convict me of my lifestyle, of my lack of love for my family and my priorities in life, which was career, me, family, then God. And it’s clear that you were to seek first the Kingdom of God and all the other things shall be added unto you. So we started building our relationship, through forgiveness and love and walking together with Jesus through our marriage, which was healed. My family was healed. The Lord gave me the ability to put Him first in my life. And so since that time we’ve been traveling the world, sharing our story and it’s been a blessing to be able to not only challenge others but share the deep, real love that Jesus has for all mankind.
Aaron: It’s so good to hear that someone that has had so much success in their life and has done something, achieved something, that very few can and pretty much no one can now. It is so amazing to hear that even that wasn’t enough and that God was able to fill that void in your life. And Charlie, we really appreciate you sharing that.
Charlie: Exactly. Let me just let me add that in Jesus, I found a peace that I was searching for and the purpose of my life which was to serve God as actually a businessman now and retired military and a retired astronaut. And a walk on the moon was very exciting. I’d do it again. I’m still physically qualified to do it but NASA says, don’t call us. We’ll call you. And it lasted for three days, but a walk with Jesus lasts forever, and it’s been a very exciting adventure.
Erin: Well, very exciting to speak to you today.
Charlie: Thank you.