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New Braunfels Resident And Former Astronaut Talks About The Apollo 16 Mission

Texas Public Radio
Charlie Duke, and TPR's Morning Edition Host Norma Martinez

Charles “Charlie” Duke is a New Braunfels resident who has just happened to have walked on the moon.  April marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 16 mission.  Duke was the lunar module pilot for the mission.  TPR’s Norma Martinez had a chance to talk with the 81-year-old former astronaut, who like the moon-walkers before him, left behind some memories on the lunar surface.

DUKE: 1972 was the 25th Anniversary of the U.S.A.F as a separate service.  I was the only Air Force officer gonna be on the moon that year. So the idea was ‘let me say Happy Birthday, Air Force!’  So they sent me these two little medals.  One, I was to leave on the moon and one I was to bring back with me.   And the other thing, more personal, was a picture of my family that we had taken in my backyard the month before the flight.  We said, ‘well, let’s go to the moon as a family,’ and the only way to do that is in a photograph. So I got permission to take this photograph along, I put it in some plastic, and on the back of the picture we’d written ‘this is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke who landed on the moon in April 1972' and we all signed it.  And so I dropped it on the moon and took a picture of the picture.  And that was, except for Neil Armstrong’s step onto the moon, was one of the most reproduced photographs ever.   

MARTINEZ: Well, referring back to Apollo XI, you were actually CapCom for that mission, which means that you were the one individual, who was an astronaut,  who was at Mission Control, and you were the one person who would be communicating with the men who were on their mission to the moon.  And I think that people probably don’t know that you’re the one who spoke to Neil (Armstrong) and Buzz (Aldrin) when they were getting ready to land on the moon with 16 seconds or so of fuel in the capsule,  you were the one who told the whole world ‘you’ve got a bunch of guys here about to turn blue.’

DUKE: We knew that in real life something can always go wrong.   And so we were prepared for all of the situations, but it was very frustrating as we started down, we had communication problems, then the computer was overloaded, and I thought that was the end of the mission.  We gonna have to abort.  But anyway, all of that allowed tension to build up in Mission Control.  And I’d called ‘Eagle 30 seconds,’ which meant he had 30 seconds to land.  And the next call from Mission Control was going to be ‘abort.’   13 seconds or so later, Buzz Aldrin said ‘contact, engine stop,’ and so we knew they were on the ground.   Then Neil, very camly as I recall, ‘Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.’  And that’s when I came back with ‘Roger, we copy on the ground. We got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We breathin’ again.’  And we were, I think we really were.  We were holding our breath ‘are we gonna make it, are we gonna make it.’  And sure enough, they pulled it off with 17 seconds of fuel to spare.

Martinez: Well, President Trump recently signed a space policy into law, and it gives NASA quite a bit of money for space exploration, and I’m curious what your opinion is on that, because the President really wants to get us on a manned mission to Mars.  Nothing really was mentioned about the moon, but what are your thoughts?

DUKE: It seems to me we should return to the moon.  It’s been 45 years, well, almost 50 for Apollo XI.  And develop the systems that will last on the Mars surface to get the confidence in those systems near in the moon.  And when you get to Mars, you’re basically autonomous, so things gotta work and you gotta be able to repair them yourself.  So let’s get that experience on the moon, is my idea.  Buzz Aldrin Is just the opposite, let’s press on to Mars and we’ll take our chances.  So it’s gonna be somewhere in between.  Right now we don’t have a lander to land anywhere with people, but we can develop that.  So, I’m excited that President Trump’s at least committed us to deep space and back utilizing our new spacecraft, the Orion, and the Space Launch System, the new rocket, to start visioning [sic] missions out to rendezvous with asteroids, or  orbit the moon again, or land on the moon, so let’s hope that it will continue.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1