Lancaster astronaut recalls Moon landing on 40th anniversary

Published: Apr. 20, 2012 at 9:15 PM EDT|Updated: May. 20, 2012 at 9:15 PM EDT
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LANCASTER, SC (WBTV) - Most kids grow up dreaming of the stars wanting to be an astronaut.

When Charlie Duke was at Lancaster High School in 1950 and he just dreamed of following his father's footsteps to be a military officer.

After graduating from the Naval Academy, Duke became a pilot in the Air Force.  He was serving as a fighter pilot in Germany when he heard about the first selection of astronauts to go into space.

"I began to say man that ought to be a fun, fun experience, but I wasn't qualified. Then thought the space program would pass me by," said Duke during a rare sit-down interview with WBTV.

Duke ended up at MIT where his work on Apollo guidance and navigation systems earned him a ticket onto the Apollo program.

In the nine Apollo missions to go to the moon, Duke worked on five of them, including Apollo 11.

"Well, Neil Armstrong came to me and said 'How about doing the same thing you did on 10 for us' so I developed those procedures," said Duke.

Everyone knows these famous words.

"Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed."

Those words came from Armstrong after the first successful landing on the lunar surface in 1969. The voice you hear next on the transmission from mission control - was Duke.

"Roger that Tranquility. We copy you on ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue, we're breathing again," Duke was recorded saying.

Duke was the back-up Lunar module pilot for Apollo 13 and 17, but Apollo 16 was his mission to the moon.

Jan Duke, Charlie's sister-in-law, traveled to Cape Canaveral to watch the blast off.

"I think half of Lancaster made the trip down to the cape for that," she said. "Everybody was so excited there were signs all over town."

Charlie went to Lancaster High School up through the 10th grade before transferring to Admiral Farragut Academy in Florida.

His twin brother, Bill, was a well known doctor in Lancaster for many years, before his death last year.  Although identically physically, Jan says the brothers had big differences.

"Hand writing was the same, gestures, voice mannerisms. But my husband did not like to fly, and did not fly unless he had to, and my brother-in-law didn't like the sight of blood," Jan Duke said.

During the days leading up to the launch, Jan says there seemed to be no fear in her brother-in-law's mind about traveling nearly 239,000-miles from home.

"He was behind glass at the space center, but we all could go an visit with him the night before the space shot," she said. "He was excited, enthusiastic there was absolutely no fear. Just total confidence in the program."

April 16th was the day of the launch.

"It was like being on the end of a 360-foot fishing pole that was very limber. As you began you assent - the vehicle, the engines were moving at the bottom and you're way up there on the other end," Charlie Duke told WBTV.

"So when the engines moved to control the trajectory, that vibration is transmitted up through the aluminum structure by the time it gets to the space craft the vibration is side to side.  It's pretty violent."

The launch was much different for Jan Duke, who was watching from the Cape.

"Oh the noise is deafening," said Jan Duke. "I think everybody held their breath a little until the stages were reached and they got into orbit and you felt like things were going as planned."

Duke and the space craft named Casper reached lunar orbit on April 19th.

"If you weren't really busy doing something, you were glued to the window watching this exciting scenery go by underneath you," said Duke.

The crew spent a day in orbit before heading down to the surface.

Then on April 20, 40-years ago today, Duke and John Young became the 9th and 10th men to go where only few have walked. The landing was one of the highlights of his trip.

"Almost on target, we had to maneuver a little bit to the left and back up a little bit to land on our desired landing spot," said Duke who was the Lunar Module Pilot. "We probably came within 200 yards of where 'x' marks the spot."

Duke recalls as he looked across the lunar landscape.

"It was the most desert, desert you could imagine," said Duke. "It was more emotional, it was an emotional high you were just awed by the beauty of it, the stillness of it, the roughness, the terrain, the excitement of, and the fact I'm on the Moon."

Both men spent three days on the surface, but rarely could see home -- Earth.

"The landing spot was in the middle of the moon, so the Earth was directly over head and so as you looked up in an Apollo helmet which was like a big fish bowl, you couldn't see it."

Trained as a pilot, trained as an astronaut, Duke also had to be trained as a geologist.

"By the time we flew, we had the equivalent of a master's degree in geology," said Duke.

Young and Duke drove the lunar rover and collected many rock samples. After 71 hours, 2 minutes and 13 seconds on the lunar surface - it was time to go home.

"We pleaded with mission control, 'Two more hours, just two more hours. We have so much to do'," said Duke.

Back on Earth, Jan Duke traveled with her husband, Bill, to Houston to watch the return and splash down.

"I don't know if we were so over-awed at the time, but when you realize really what happened and what a part he had to play it's just kind of overwhelming," said Jan Duke.

Forty years later, Duke often thinks about the future of the space program and going back to the moon. He says it would be much easier today, because when he flew there he did it with a computer compared with a modern day cell phone.

"I would like to see us go back to the moon with an understanding of how to live out there a long time and eventually see us go to Mars," said Duke.

However in 2010, NASA canceled its plans to go back to the moon; something Duke doesn't always agree with.

"It was just a decision to cancel it, which we were very disappointed. So right now, the only way we can get into space is flying on a Russian space craft," said Duke.

He says it takes more than just three men on top of a rocket to accomplish such a lofty dream.

"Apollo was a team work effort it took all 400,000 of us working on the program to get us to the Moon. We just happened to be riding the rocket and got the publicity, but it was everybody underneath pushing us that made it possible," said Duke.

Duke spends his post-Apollo days going around the world giving motivational speeches with his wife. He's also on the boards of several companies and also in the Christian ministry, sharing his faith all over the world.

"Now I look back of course and I see the heavens declare the glory of God and you can see in the Bible it says when God made the earth he suspended it upon nothing and that's exactly what it looks like from the moon there's the earth just hung in the blackness of space," said Duke. "It's been a very fulfilling life and a very busy life. I would flunk retirement. I'm 76 but still going strong."

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