Above: NASA’s official portrait of Charlie Duke.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Man’s first landing on the moon on Saturday, July 20, 1969, we’re revisiting our interviews with astronaut Charles Duke.
The 10th person to walk on the moon with Apollo 16 in 1972, Charlie was also “Capsule Communicator” for the 1969 landing. His southern-twanged voice is the one you hear speaking from Ground Control in Houston, Texas, in the famous recordings of that day. After Neil Armstrong’s famous line “The Eagle has landed”, it is Charlie we hear next – expressing the relief and joy of everyone at NASA:
“Roger, Tranquillity, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys on the ground about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot…” “…Be advised there’s lots of smiling faces in this room and all over the world. Over.”
Hope 103.2’s Sheridan Voysey, Erin La Macchia and Aaron Wright caught up with Charlie in 2009 and 2012, and in the excerpts below, he speaks about his incredible experiences.
Chatting with Charlie Duke
Sheridan: So you’re sitting in a massive rocket and you start hearing the ’10, 9, 8’ count-down. How did you feel at that moment?
Charlie: Well, you’re ready to go. We had been two years in training, and I’m telling you, I was ready to go. I wasn’t looking forward to an abort, I wasn’t looking forward to any delay, I wasn’t looking forward to another month of training, I was prepared and my thoughts were, “Let’s light this thing and let’s get going”.
The Feeling of Zero-Gravity
Sheridan: Give us a bit of an idea as to what you experience up there in zero gravity.
Charlie: Well, at first, you have a headache, it seems like your blood pressure is real high. You know, your heart doesn’t have to pump blood against gravity like it does down here, and so, you have this sort of pounding sensation in your head. And I felt like I was going to get seasick for the first hour or so. Fortunately, that went away, and then, I was able to relax and float around the spacecraft, do the procedures and the checklist items that I had to perform.
In zero gravity, once you got used to it, your body adjusts, the headache goes away, and you just really enjoy this lightness and you just sort of float around wherever you want to.
Walking on the Moon
Sheridan: So you and John Young don the space suits and go for a moonwalk. Tell me [about that].
Charlie: Well, of course, very, very exciting. Emotionally, it was a great high, the culmination of all of our training and effort. And so, I opened the hatch, John got out, climbed down the ladder. And a few minutes later, I climbed down the ladder and, since we were the fifth landing, we knew we weren’t going to sink into the moon dust, it was going to support our weight. So we just hopped off the pad – and I was in awe of the beauty of the moon, and the pristine nature of it.
And the thoughts kept occurring, “Nobody has ever been here before.” You know, “Look at the mountains to the south and the mountains to the north, the grey rolling terrain and just the excitement of being there.” You know, it was like a kid, Christmas morning, running from one present to the next. And that’s really the way we did it, but more in an organized fashion because we had a lot to do and a lot to accomplish. So we were just in wonder and awe as we were going about our business.
Aaron: What was it like when you walked on the moon?
Charlie: 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… You trained three years, and so now we’re finally here. And so I was very excited, emotional about it…
Even though it was a hostile environment, I felt very much at home on the lunar surface.
Playing With Rocks, and an $8 Million Moon Buggy
Sheridan: You did have some jobs to do like collecting moon rocks and things like that, didn’t you.
Charlie: Well, that was the primary objective of course was to collect the variety of rocks that we were to find in our landing area. But we also had a whole suite of experiments that we emplaced and left on the moon. Two seismic experiments, a magnetometer, a mass heat flow, a mass spectrometer, those kind of things that would measure these parameters of the moon, where we landed.
Sheridan: You also got to race around in that lunar buggy… that looked like a lot of fun.
Charlie: It was. It was called the lunar rover was the official name, and we just called it the rover. I was the navigator… so, I had a set of maps… And it was rough driving across the moon. This little car only weighed 80 pounds, it bounced a lot, you had to put on your seat belt. And it spun a lot… so it was a challenge driving it for John but also a lot of fun.
Sheridan: The lunar rover, that’s still up there on the moon, isn’t it?
Charlie: Yes, the last three Apollo missions had a rover, so there are three. And as I say to folks, “If you want an eight-million-dollar car with a dead battery, there’s three of them on the moon”.
‘Moon Olympics’, And One Terrifying Moment
Sheridan: The zero gravity allowed you to have a bit of fun up there too, you did your own Moon Olympics I hear.
Charlie: The one-sixth gravity on the moon was really freeing. Down here, with all of my equipment on, I weighed 362 pounds, up on the moon, I weighed 60 pounds. And so, you could jump high – but easy to lose your balance. So we just thought it would be fun and have the Moon Olympics on the moon, a high jump and a broad jump.
It turned out that, during the high jump, I fell over backwards, which was the only scary moment of the whole mission. Fortunately, my suit held together and I bounced onto my back. But that ended the Olympics. It was really a frightening moment at that point as I was falling over backwards.
Sheridan: If something had have happened to your spacesuit, what would’ve happened?
Charlie: I wasn’t concerned about the spacesuit actually, it was very strong. It’d been demonstrated to me that you could, you know, pound it with a sledgehammer and it was gonna hold together. The weak link was the backpack, which was our life support system – which contained oxygen, and electrical power, and cooling water, and communications, and it was cables, and electrical systems, and plumbing. And if you fell on your back on that, you could rupture a tank, you could rupture the plumbing, and you lose all your pressurization and you die.
The body can’t survive a vacuum. And so, the danger on the lunar surface or out in space on a spacewalk is, if a glove pops off or a helmet breaks or something happens, you lose your pressurization. There’s no way out, you’re dead.
Looking Back at Planet Earth
Aaron: When you turned your head though and looked back at planet Earth, 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, [that] 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.
“You could see the Earth rise above the lunar surface. It was beautiful… it just suspended 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… like Europe or Asia or anything like that.
It was beautiful. It just suspended in the blackness of space. Two verses come to mind [from] scripture. In Isaiah, the 40th chapter… 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 it’s 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.
Things Kept, Things Left Behind
Erin: 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: 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.
Sheridan: Did you bring back any personal mementos…any moon rocks sitting on your shelves or any Moon dust saved from your shoes?
Charlie: I got some maps… the shovel that we used on the moon, some of our check lists… some little pins that were pulled out of the experiments, as we deployed, stuck in my pocket. But we weren’t allowed to keep any moon rocks or moon dust of any significance. And I don’t have my moon boots, we left those up there. Which was a mistake, I wish I brought them back… We only had a limited weight that we could lift off the moon … So we left the moon boots up there. But they didn’t weigh very much. I wish I had one now as a momento…
An Amazing Feat of Humanity
Sheridan: It really is an amazing feat of humanity that we’ve actually achieved it, isn’t it? It’s amazing.
Charlie: It’s amazing, yeah. Looking back, you know, with what look like from now rudimentary technologies, but then, the state of the art. Our computer on board had 80K memory and, you know, your cell phone has lots more than that… But it all worked and we had motivated people, dedicated people, smart people involved in all stages of this program, and people didn’t make any mistakes. Except for Apollo 1, Apollo was a tremendous success – even recovering Apollo 13, which was a near disaster.
Erin: 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… Today my iPhone, which has a 16 gig memory, that works out to 200,000 times the memory of our Apollo computer.
- Charlie Duke: “You Can Travel to the Moon and Still be Empty” – Only Jesus Gave Him Peace
- See the full-length interview by Sheridan Voysey
- See the full-length interview by Aaron & Erin
- Learn more at charlieduke.com, and in Charlie’s book & DVD, Moonwalker.