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I almost killed myself on the Moon – Apollo 16 astronaut

Just a few of us have had the privilege of seeing Earth from above, and from the Moon, they say, it’s so small that you can hide it behind your finger. On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, we talk to legendary moonwalker and astronaut Charlie Duke.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Charlie Duke, welcome to the show! It’s great to have you with us. 

Charles Duke: Thank you very much! Good to be with you. 

SS:So, it's all about the moon lately, because it's going to be 50 years, and it's been 50 years since Apollo 11 landed on the moon.The men, who went there, were not completely sure that they would come back. You were CAPCOM at that point. What was it like to be controlling things that you're not really in control of? You were just giving your best advice. 

CD: That's the role of Mission Control actually to control like an orchestra conductor: the whole things unfolding, and the mission control team supplies advice and recommendations according to mission rules. And as we started our descent, we began having several problems on pairing, communication problems, data dropout, computer problems. And so with all of that compounding tension of Mission Control began to rise very, very quickly. And so it became one of the most tense, intense I should say, advance that I had ever experienced in my life as a fighter pilot, test pilot... I mean, go back all the way through my career.  

SS: Thank God everything ended well, but I can imagine - you were like: “Oh, my God, everything, once they were there, went well, and now they're landing. We can't let this happen”. 

CD: Well, that was the hope, but the mission rule...There were certain mission rules. Like, if you lost the computer, the mission, the landing attempt was over. You needed the primary computer. Now you could get back in orbit with the abort guidance system, but it would not land you. So, when I saw the computer alarms indicating that computer had a problem, my heart sank, really, because you need the computer to land. I said: “Oh, no! We're over. It's over. '' But that was the thought that was swarming about that time. The guidance controller Steve Bales said, hollered out in the room: "We are go flight! ”And so I hollered up to the crew: “We are go!” on that alarm. And so we continued our descent, but the tension began to rise rapidly. 

SS:What was it more challenging for you personally - to be part of the mission on the moon or to be part of the mission on the Earth controlling what you're describing right now? 

CD: I think, I was more intense, more anxious about mission control, than I was actually landing on the moon. The landing on the moon is very dynamic: you're looking out the window, you can see the surface uprear, get closer. You’re reading the computer and the information it's giving you, and you're talking your commander down as he's flying. So you're so focused, but so excited about that. Whereas in mission control, you're just looking basically at a TV screen, and it's got some numbers on it. But you don't feel, you can't see the drama unfolding, if you will. So you get more nervous, I guess, and intense, and just anxious: “Are we going to make it? Are we going to make it?”  

SS: So, when you're up there, landing on the moon, you're saying you're so focused that you don't have time to worry.  

CD: That's right.  

SS: Right? Because space missions even now, 60 years on, are dangerous.  

CD: They're all dangerous. 

SS: Back then, I can imagine, it was like something they were testing every day. So, you had no element of fear or anything when you were out in the open space? 

CD: The only time I had a moment of fear was when I fell over backwards. 

SS:Oh my God, that's when you were jumping with your colleague. What was that all about? We’ve all seen the photos.Was it like dabbling about like kids having fun or was it like?... 

CD: We had fun the three days we were up there. John and I were just like two brothers and so he had a good sense of humor, and training, and we had a great time joking back and forth. So we were going to be the same way up on the moon, which we did. And at the end we decided that we would do the moon Olympics. The Munich Olympics were that year. And so we would start the Olympic year off with a high jump on the moon. Well, when I jumped... Down here on Earth, I weighed a hundred and sixty five kilos with all my equipment on. Up there - twenty seven kilos. So I would manage to get up maybe a metre off the moon. But when I straightened up to jump, my center gravity went backwards and over, I went like this. And the life support system on your back is only a carbon fiber shell, if you will. Maybe plastic. But it is not designed to have an impact on the moon, and it contains all your oxygen and regulators. Anyway, I managed to roll right and break my fall, but my heart was pounding. And fortunately everything held together, and I didn't kill myself on the moon. 

SS:Many astronauts and cosmonauts, when you ask them, they say that weightlessness is the most fun factor when you're out there in space. But you go through so much training before you actually go into space. Does that sort of take away a little bit from the excitement of that first experience of weightlessness, or is it still something you never experienced before?    

CD: Actually, the training intensifies, I think, the excitement because you've worked so hard in training and you’re ready to go by the time you get to launch: “Let's go, I'm ready. Let's lift off. I want my chance. '' So you're more excited about that moment of liftoff, than you would be without... If you just loaded in there and with no training, I think you'd be a lot more nervous. But now, after all this training, we were prepared to go, and I knew exactly all emergency procedures. Everything that we could do to save this mission, we were going to do and do it correctly. 

SS:You spent two days or three days? 

CD: 71 hours - almost three days. 

SS:Yes. You slept there, ate there, washed yourself, etc. for two days. What was it like? I mean, I can't imagine sleeping there in zero gravity, or… Just tell me the whole process. 

CD: First, we landed on the moon and we were six hours late landing because of a problem on the other spacecraft. So, now we're on the moon and our flight plan had us to put on our backpacks, go outside and explore for our first moonwalk.But that would have extended our day so long, that we had been like 35-40 hours awake before we could get back and get a rest period. So they changed the flight plan, and they said: “OK, you go to sleep. Have a rest period before you go out”. Well, OK, but I mean you can imagine, Sophie, our lives were like this, we were glued to the window, we were here, we've seen all this wonderful exciting stuff, we were ready to go out, and they say “go to sleep”. Well, I couldn't get to sleep. And finally I had to take a sleeping pill to get me quiet, if you will. And I had about four hours of rest that night, but after that you're really exhausted in the suit. And we were so excited. I never lost my excitement, enthusiasm about being on the moon in 71 hours. 

SS: But I just always wondered what it would feel like to sleep in the weightlessness? 

CD: Well, on the Moon, you're not weightless. We have a hammock, OK? And so you're one sixths gravity, and so we strung hammocks, and we slept in our hammocks. But up in space, the first sleep period was very unusual for me. That was a sort of a catapult underneath the seat. And underneath the seat, there was about a half a meter room, and you could just float under there, and so you fold your arms and close your eyes, and then you're waiting for your head to nod off like it does here, but it doesn't happen. You're just there. And finally, I had to wedge my head underneath. There was a couch support on the floor, and I wedged my head to get some pressure, and then I went to sleep. But it was very unusual. But once you get used to zero gravity, it was the deepest sleep I've ever had. Coming back from the moon, I was on the heart monitor. And the doctors, they almost woke me up, because my heartbeat went down to twenty eight. And I was in the deepest sleep I’ve ever had in my life. Very refreshing when you woke up. 

SS: So, you were always tasked with inspecting the moon's highlands, and you're sort of navigating the lunar rover across the moon's surface. I mean, to me it all looks like Moon's surface is covered with grey dust.  

CD: That's true. 

SS:So, honestly, for a traveler, not an astronaut, is the moon landscape sort of boring? I mean, you might as well just go to Iceland and no need to go out in space for that. 

CD: Well, Iceland is probably the closest I've ever seen to the Moon. Out in the center of Iceland, there's no vegetation, so it's just barren surface. But the Moon has a beauty about it, and it's an intriguing beauty, because you've never seen your landing site in detail. Very rough terrain, and you’re over the hills, and dales, and valleys...  

SS: So, was it like driving a cart rather than a car when you are on the moon? 

CD: Yes, it's more like a golf cart, I guess, if you will. I didn't drive, I was the navigator, but John drove, and it bounced a lot because of the suspension system. And it's a very rough surface, but it had an intriguing, almost intoxication to you, that you were so excited about being there. What's over the next ridge? What am I going to see over here? Look at this mountain over here. So, you were always fascinated about what you were seeing. Though it's the same colour, shades of gray, covered with a very, very fine powder, which is actually pulverised rock, and all that sprinkles down over the moon... And so you drive, you leave your tracks, you walk, you leave your tracks. I never got tired of the beauty, and the excitement, and wonder, and all of being on the moon. 

SS:Do you come back to those rides in your head often, and is this something in particular that always comes back and that you remember all the time? 

CD: Several stops. On the second day, we drove south what we call Stone Mountain, and the mountain was probably three hundred meters or so. And we drove about halfway up, and turned around, and it's spectacular valley. We had landed in this big valley about 10 kilometres across. And I could see all the way across the valley, and the only object with colour other than gray was the little lunar module out there, in the middle of the valley. And there was spectacular beauty, and the contrast between the gray bright reflection of the moon and the blackness of space is very, very dramatic, and you just look up, and there's just blackness. When the sun was shining, which on Apollo was all the time, while you were on the moon you can't see the stars, so you just look up and there is just blackness of it, and it's a velvety black. You feel like you can reach out and touch it.  

SS: Then when you were coming back, what did it feel like? Did you feel sad? I mean, this adventure is probably a once in a lifetime. Or were you really happy to come back? 

CD: I wouldn’t say I was sad. I couldn't say I was sad, but we pleaded for another two hours while we were on the moon. “Come on, guys, we're not tired and let's give us another two hours!” But they were concerned about our power supply. And they wanted us to get back in and leave. When they say “leave”, so... I guess I was more nostalgic than sad. It was so much fun, and we'd had such a successful three days. As far as the science, as far as the rock collections and the experiments we did, and everything had been so successful, that we were just so pleased with our performance and excited about maybe returning home. But I knew, I would never get a chance to go back. So that was the disappointing part, but it was still an exhilaration about “Hey, we did this, and now we're back going home”. So it's a great sense of satisfaction. 

SS:Do you miss it? Because most of the astronauts and cosmonauts I’ve talked to, they always describe this feeling when you're in outer space as something that you will never be able to get on the Earth. And that is something that they all miss very much... 

CD: I call it “the wonder of it all”. That was a documentary years ago talked about the moon, and it was “The Wonder Of It All”. And even now, 47 years later, I just get excited talking to you about it. You know, it just brings back so many exciting feelings and memories, and you can't remember every step, but I can remember the major places we stopped, and the major things we saw, and the fun of driving, riding the rover, the excitement of every… Everything we did was just so exhilarating. 

SS:When you were coming back to Earth after three and something days of being in space what is it like? What is the first thing that you see when you come out? Is it like “Oh, my god, I know this environment! This is my physical world. '' Or is it something else? 

CD: Well, when you hit the water... Coming back in, the last exciting thing you see is the parachutes. If you’re without a parachute, you don't survive. So, you need the parachutes to have a successful landing. So, we saw the parachutes open up and I looked out the window, and there was a helicopter flying by. So, we're home free, if you will.  And we hit the water, and it was like “I'm back. It's over. '' And, man, I was excited to be back. 

SS:It's a great feeling to be back in a geographical reality that you know and that you’re aware of, right? 

CD: Exactly.  

SS:So, you left a photo of your family back on the Moon. Neil Armstrong left his photo camera, but I mean the moon is believed to be covered with four hundred thousand pounds of trash. When people leave things like you left your photo, was it, like, a special reason? 

CD: Yes. We lived in Houston, Texas. But the training was all in Florida. So for two years I would leave either Sunday night or Monday morning and fly to Florida. Train all week, come back on Friday night late, or Saturday morning. So I was only there for two or three days. Two days at a maximum. For two years! And so, the family gets in a routine, and dad shows up... And the boys were young: 7 and just almost 5. So I tried to get them involved in what was going on. So, we had a little family meeting. I said: “You guys, like to go to the moon with dad?” They said: “Oh, dad, that would be great”. Of course, you can't actually do it. But I said: “Well, look we'll have a picture taken of our family, and I'll take it to the moon with me and leave us, our family, on the moon in that picture”. They got really excited. So, on the back of the picture I wrote: “This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon in April 1972”. And so we all four signed it, and I got permission to take that picture and leave it on the moon. And so one of the last things I did on the moon was to take that picture out of my pocket and drop it onto the moon and then take a picture of the picture. And it was a very emotional moment for me and for the family. And the boys, now, 47 years later, they…  We’ve just completed a film called “Lunar Tribute”. It's about that photograph and about our emotional side. So it's a sort of a documentary. So, it was very, very special time for our family to have that picture taken and then leave it on the moon. 

SS: You took your boys to the moon.  

CD: Yes.  

SS: So, back then all the lunar missions were treated by America or the USSR as a Cold War race. Did it feel like that to you? 

CD: Not really. We knew we were in a race, but we never thought about it. If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose. But that was my feeling: I wanted to win, and we worked really hard at accelerating our schedule. And when Neil Armstrong landed the first time, we got congratulations from the Russian space programme, and everybody else. I think I was more proud of the fact that we landed, that we accomplish the goal of what President Kennedy said, than beating somebody. I never looked at it really as at a competition. I looked at it as accomplishing the goal that President Kennedy said: “We're going to land a man on the moon by the end of 1969”.  

SS: So you said the Russiancosmonauts congratulated you when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon. Sadly, there's still a lot of people who believe that the lunar landings were faked. Like a Stanley Kubrick film that was made in Hollywood. And these days those ideas are actually gaining tractions. Why are they spreading now, after 50 years of progress in space exploration? 

CD: I have no idea. It's like the people that believe the Earth is flat. And obviously the Earth is not flat. You can see the pictures that we take, and it's a sphere. And the moon... people don't believe it because they have this idea: “Well, look at the pictures. There's black sky, but no stars”. Well the sun's shining. They don't think about that. And then “there's no crater under the moon from the blast of the engine”, and those kind of things. “The flag is waving…” 

SS: Yes, yes! The flag is waving is like the biggest argument. 

CD: Yes. But the flag’s not waving, it's held out by an aluminum rod, holding it out. And it's wrinkled, because it was vacuum packed real tightly, for six months stowed on the lunar module. When I got it out, I tried to get the wrinkles out, but I couldn't. It was just permanently wrinkled. So it looks like it's waving but it's not. If you look at the pictures that I took right after I planted a flag, it's got this pattern of wrinkles. Seventy two hours later, I took another picture and there were the same wrinkles. So, obviously it's not blowing in the breeze. 

SS: So, 1972 was the last time the moon landing took place. There haven't been manned missions ever since. Why? 

CD: Well, the decision was to go to the space shuttle which was a transportation system in and out of orbit. It was supposed to reduce the cost of getting satellites, telescopes, whatever, labs in the space. Turned out, it was a very expensive programme. And instead of lasting 10 or 15 years it lasted 30 years. And so we spent a lot of money, and it was consuming the budget of NASA for the operation side of it. And so it was President Bush No.2. When he was the president, he said: “Well, we'll recommit missions to the moon”. So, that was the beginning to look out, back to the moon again. And everybody was disappointed. I thought we'd be well on our way to Mars by now.  

SS: But they say it’s too expensive? 

CD: Yes. Well, one - too expensive. But if you're going to fly the shuttle, you can't go to the moon. So you've got to say: “OK, shuttle that's it. We're going to start developing another programme to go to the moon”. And fortunately now a lot of the things that NASA had been doing in space, the private companies can take over: SpaceX, Blue Origin - those kinds of companies. And NASA can now focus on deep space and to return to the moon planning in the future to go to Mars. And I think that's what we're going to see. 

SS:So, the last question. You were the youngest astronaut to step on the surface of the moon, and there's a lot of talk about space tourism now. How long would it take until a young kid or a young boy of your age is going to step on the surface of the moon? 

CD: I hope it's really soon. I use this as a joke: I was the youngest man when I stepped on the moon; now I'm 83 years old and I'm still the youngest man who stepped on the Moon. And I was only four months younger than Jack Schmitt, so it's no big deal, but I'm looking forward to the day when this kid can step on the moon. If I'm still alive, I'll be the first to shake his hand and say him congratulations. 

SS: You will be. Charlie Duke, thank you so much for sharing this amazing experience.  

CD: I appreciate this, thank you.

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