Charlie Duke had the thrill of hearing Neil Armstrong’s voice crackle over the radio in Mission Control when Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969.
Three years later, NASA astronaut Duke left his own footprints on the moon as a crew member of Apollo 16. And 45 years to the day after going into lunar orbit, Duke offered a vivid description of the moon’s mountains to a packed auditorium Wednesday night at The Weiss School.
Duke, 81, recounted how “eerie” it was to approach the dark side of the moon, only to be rewarded with the awe-inducing view that came next.
“There was just that jewel of earth just suspended in space,” Duke marveled.
The shadows were very dark and the sunlight incredibly bright on the moon, he said. Nearly all of the rocks were some shade of gray, and footprints never disappear in the fine powder that covers the moon’s surface.
The temperature was 85 degrees when the crew arrived and 230 degrees when they left, Duke said. Their space suits protected them, so durable that during a pre-space fitting, a man pounded it with a hammer while Duke laid on the floor wearing it.
The Apollo 16 mission focused on the unexplored Descartes Highlands region of the moon, which has an elevation equivalent to about 8,000 feet above sea level on Earth. Walking uphill was similar to hopping, while walking downhill was more like skipping, Duke recounted. Bumping around in a lunar roving vehicle made you grateful to have a securely-fastened seat belt, he said.
The crew used an ultraviolet camera on the moon and gathered over 200 pounds of rocks to bring back home for study, Duke said.
Nothing was frightening, except when Duke and Apollo 16 Commander John Young spontaneously decided to do “Moon Olympics.” Duke was going to set the record for the high jump. Instead, he bounced and fell on his back.
“If the backpack broke, I was dead. My heart was pounding,” he said.
He didn’t break anything, and the crew splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean on April 27, 1972. They spent about two weeks debriefing every system and were eager for a return trip. Duke, along with Young, were part of the backup crew for Apollo 17, which was the final Apollo moon mission.
Students at The Weiss School in September also heard from astronaut Story Musgrave, who helped repair the Hubble Telescope and went on six spaceflights. NASA selected a satellite students at the school designed that it will launch into space next year to study bacteria that has thawed after being trapped in ice.
Evan Vera, a seventh-grade student who is the main programmer for the school’s satellite, said it was nice to hear from someone who’s been in the aerospace field.
“I love being at a school where we get to have these amazing experiences,” he said.
Duke said he predicts the future of space exploration will involve the development of a base on the moon, similar to one in Antarctica. The base would allow scientists to develop reliable systems to use on Mars, where astronauts will have to operate independent of mission control.
How and when NASA will get to Mars depends on the political climate, he said.
“You need leaders who will make bold decisions to commit our country to something like that,” Duke said.
Eighth-grade student Michael Evrard-Vescio interviewed Musgrave and Duke for a school broadcast.
“It’s definitely something I’ll never forget,” he said.