Imagine an ant, happily scuttling around an ant-farm on your desk. Were you able to speak to the ant, and explain that his ant-farm was on a desk, in an office or a home, on a street, in a city, in a country, on a planet in the universe…. chances are, the ant would simply not be able to conceive what you are saying (nor would he probably believe you). For our ant (along with the overwhelming majority of living creatures), the limits of its existence are within its small and clearly defined territory.
Humans are different. We see our confines not as limits but as challenges- we are a species who have overcome everything (including ourselves) to become a dominant force on the planet. We are the first species in the billion year history of Earth to have dreamt big enough to stand on another celestial body and observe our home. With every move forward in our story has come a change in perspective, we began (not too long ago) by thinking we were made in God’s image at the centre of a small solar system surrounded by a spiritual ether- and now we understand that we are a mathematically insignificant speck in a system of universes that challenges even our most enlightened minds.
Charlie Duke was born in Charlotte, NC, in 1935. Led by a desire to serve his country, Duke attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Following graduation, he was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force, and thus began a life-long love of flying. Over the years as fighter pilot, test pilot, and then encouraged by his commandant Chuck Yeager to become an Apollo astronaut, this love of adventure grew to the pinnacle of achievement when on April 20, 1972, he, along with John Young, landed on the surface of the moon. Their stay on the moon was a record-setting 71 hours and 14 minutes. Duke and Young spent more than 20 hours exploring the moon. This involved emplacement and activation of scientific equipment and experiments, the collection of nearly 213 pounds of rock and soil samples, and the evaluation and use of Rover-2 (their lunar car) over the roughest and blockiest surface yet encountered on the moon. Charlie Duke filmed the only pictures made of the rover in action – it’s record setting speed was 17 kilometres per hour. During Apollo’s three day return from the moon, Duke experienced a space walk with the third crew member, Ken Mattingly. The view over one shoulder was filled with a brilliant full moon and over the other hung a crescent earth – a thin sliver of blue and white. “Fantastic!” Charlie would exclaim again and again. Apollo 16 returned to a hero’s welcome, with Duke, Young and Mattingly each receiving the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.
Q: Why did America go for the Moon?
[Charlie Duke] We were in competition with the Russian’s, which was the space race. In the early days, we realised they’d already beaten us into orbit and orbited a human being first. Wernher von Braun and others concluded the only way we could beat them was to go to the Moon.
The conditions were right for us to plan it. We had a prosperous economy, no real wars going on and the interest in science and technology at the beginning of the space age made it quite natural to say, “let’s go to the Moon!“. It took 400,000 people and a big budget, and we accomplished it on schedule.
Q: What were your thoughts on the dangers of the mission?
[Charlie Duke] You do a lot of planning and have a lot of emergency procedures to overcome problems. Our mission reliability studies showed 99% success. We also designed systems with fail-safe, backup and redundancy. You realise however, there comes a chance- especially on the Moon- if that engine doesn’t work, you’re not coming home. The probability was small and so everyone was prepared to accept the risk of failure.
Everything you do in life that’s worthwhile entails some risk, that’s the nature of exploration and the nature of adventure.
Q: What were your thoughts on first seeing the Earth from Space?
[Charlie Duke] When we were in Earth orbit, we were very busy. We only made one and a half orbits, and so we had to co-ordinate our rocket burn to the Moon, copy our procedures, data and all those things.
I only got to look out one time and that was when we were over the United States, and we could see Houston! We were 160km above the surface and I was surprised you could still see the major interstate highways, the runways at the airport and Galveston bay. The next time I saw the Earth, we were about 20,000 miles away and that was a spectacular view, awesome in beauty. You could see the whole Earth… the Arctic Circle, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central America… All the south western United States was free of cloud so you could see the Rocky Mountains, the Yucatan and major features… Baja California, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific…. From 20,000 miles away however, you couldn’t see any civilisation- just the land mass and those three colours… the brown of the land, the white of the clouds and the ice, and the crystal blue of the ocean. Earth was just suspended in the blackness of space and it was an incredibly beautiful sight.
Q: What were your thoughts as you approached and landed on the Moon?
[Charlie Duke] Our landing on the Moon was very dynamic- there’s a lot going on. You’re focused on flying the vehicle appropriately and landing correctly… you have to pick out a landing spot that’s fairly level with no rocks or craters…. you’re really focused on the operational side of things! We first saw the Moon from an altitude of 7,000 feet. We knew we were almost on target as we recognised the major landmarks we’d studied.
We could see the Earth from lunar orbit. As we came around the back-side of the Moon, what we saw was this half-Earth, and those looking up at the Moon from Earth would have seen a half-Moon. The Moon was going toward full and the Earth was going toward the crescent of a full Moon. From the Moon all you can see is oceans, clouds and the polar ice-caps. I couldn’t see any recognisable land-masses. I had to radio Houston and ask what I was looking at.
Once you land, it’s total excitement, “I’m on the Moon!” – you’re bubbling with enthusiasm like a little kid on holiday. I thought the Moon was just awesomely beautiful. It was stark, barren, lifeless… yet it had this beauty like the desert. It wasn’t the colour of Earth deserts, just all grey and very bright- reflecting sunlight everywhere. Strangely we felt right at home!
Q: Did you feel your own perspectives of Earth and humanity were changed by your experience?
[Charlie Duke] It wasn’t a spiritual experience for me. It wasn’t a philosophical change. To me it was just the beauty of Earth from space.
I think those pictures we took did jumpstart the modern environmental movement, but it wasn’t a personal change for me at that point. I wasn’t searching for God in those days, I’ve become a committed Christian since then- but it wasn’t as a result of my space exploration. A few astronauts did have that epiphany as they gazed out over the order and the beauty, thinking there had to be a God. Jim Irwin was a committed Christian when he went to the Moon… Gene Sternan talked about how after that experience, you had to believe in God…
The experience affected people in various ways. Some came back more environmentally conscious about the oneness of the human species and the uniqueness of Earth.
To me it was an adventure. I’m a hardened explorer and adventurer, and I remember the whole mission as an adventure with some awesome experiences and beautiful sights.
Q: Have the lunar missions left a legacy?
[Charlie Duke] Even now, 40 years since the mission, I’m still travelling all over the world sharing the experiences of Apollo. It stimulated two generations of students to look at the heavens, dream and aim high- maybe even dreaming of even reaching mars.
Q: Why did you choose to go to the Moon?
[Charlie Duke] I didn’t always want to go space. When I was at Naval academy, I fell in love with airplanes and wanted to be a pilot. That adventure in aviation is still with me.
After University I became a fighter pilot, the space programme started soon after that, and that was the ultimate adventure for a pilot! I wasn’t qualified so I had to get a Masters Degree, get test pilot experience… and every step was the fulfilment of the next-level of adventure! From fighter-pilot, to test-pilot to astronaut was a logical sequence for a guy that loves aviation.
I was very fortunate.
It took 400,000 people and (in today’s money) over $160 billion (around 16% of the amount spent on the first round of US Bank Bailouts in 2008 ) to get 12 men to the Moon, but the legacy has impacted billions of lives worldwide, and inspired changes in perspective that leave humanity a different species- with the view that if we can do that, we can do anything.
In John F. Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech at Rice Stadium he stated, “…we set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war…. 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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too….”
The lunar missions highlight two profoundly important aspects of our spirit. Firstly, humanity doesn’t like limits- once we see them, we do everything in our power to go beyond them. Secondly- and perhaps most importantly- we don’t need a direction. There was no clear reason to go to the moon other than- to quote George Mallory, “…because it’s there.“. That to my mind is one of our greatest strengths as individuals and as a species- that we are willing to undertake the biggest steps in our journey blindly, with the knowledge that great things lie in wait, even though we cannot conceive what they might me, and even though the costs may be huge.
As Oscar Wilde once said, “It is because Humanity has never known where it was going that it has been able to find its way.”