Moonwalker: ‘Breathtakingly beautiful’ – astronaut recalls his sight of Earth during Apollo flight

“I think we are going to go to the moon again, it’s been 50 years basically, and if we are going to go to Mars and have a permanent base on Mars we need to develop the systems and the habitation modules and all of that close here, so if we have problems we can talk to each other quickly. … At Mars you are basically on your own,” Duke said after his presentation.

Duke was one of the 19 astronauts selected by NASA in April 1966. Duke served as member of the astronaut support crew for the Apollo 10 flight, NASA reported, adding Duke was a liaison between the in-space crew and mission control for Apollo 11, the first landing on the moon, and he served as backup lunar module pilot on Apollo 13.

There are good reasons to build a moon base, Duke said—developing confidence in systems and the ability to repair them and live autonomously. Duke served as lunar module pilot of Apollo 16 in 1972 for what NASA reports was the fifth manned lunar landing mission and Apollo 16 was the first scientific expedition of the rugged lunar highlands.

“I’m pushing for a moon mission but eventually we will get to Mars,” Duke said. “I think it’s in the human spirit to go explore and we are going to go to the heavens.”

While it may seem exploration took a step back after the end of the space shuttles, Duke said there was a lot going on behind the scenes, both with private enterprises and NASA. By the end of the 2020s, Duke said he thinks there will be staged moon operations. He said he also believes the Mars mission will be part of the country’s future. In 1961, Duke said they’d experienced just 15 minutes in space and Kennedy made the promise to go to the moon. They accomplished it in eight years and two months.

“So it depends on the leadership and our country and the commitment of our Congress to see the benefits of funding this program,” Duke said. “Space has been a very positive program for America. The return on our investment is a lot. And so all of the technologies that were developed to get us to the moon, we enjoy in our economy today. … It was well worth the investment and I think that is going to be true in the future.”

A retired Air Force brigadier general, the former astronaut spoke before a packed house at the annual Lakes Area Mayors Prayer Breakfast in August at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa. Duke spoke of his career, the moon, skepticism of the moon landing and his life of faith at the event.

He had the group laughing when he said the whole purpose of going to the moon was to pick up rocks. The former Air Force fighter pilot and test pilot said his original knowledge was enough to distinguish rocks from dirt. But after six years with the program, he said he had the equivalent of a master’s degree in geology and lesson No. 1 was to pick up a rock of every color.

“We had gray ones, black ones and white ones up on the moon so it wasn’t so difficult to pick up the right rocks,” Duke said.

For the skeptics who question whether a moon landing ever occured, Duke said the science is there as proof—and 600 pounds of moon rocks.

“It was real,” Duke said, adding the men who stood there and returned know it was real.

Duke has spoken at prayer breakfasts across the nation and said he found it very rewarding.

Speaking of his faith, Duke said if anyone had asked him in 1970 if he saw God’s direction in his life, his honest answer would have been “no.” He was busy on a path to the moon.

“Jesus was Sunday morning, after that I’m in charge,” Duke said. “Never did think about God. And so that’s where I stood.”

He said his work came with a laser focus on the job at hand as making the wrong decision in space flight could mean someone’s life. Training for Apollo 16 was pretty arduous, Duke said.

“You don’t just wave to the crowd and launch to the moon,” he said.

The launch schedule meant two years mostly gone from home and living in Houston. The training was in Florida and included traveling across the globe for geology. The Apollo effort employed 400,000 people. Duke spent hours and hours in a simulator. There Duke said he and John Young, spacecraft commander, learned to land on the moon in the simulator—crashing about 1,000 times but landing 3,000 times.

“We had great confidence in our ability and great confidence in the ability of the mission control team,” Duke said, describing mission control as the unsung heroes of the space program.

“I did not volunteer to go to the moon for fame or fortune,” Duke said. “Fame is fleeting. In the space race and in pictures on the moon you can’t tell it’s me. I’ve got a space suit on. … So nobody has ever recognized me.”

But Duke said a trip to the moon was considered temporary duty and that meant being paid per diem, Duke said.

“So we filled out a travel voucher,” he said. “… It started in Houston, it was Houston-Kennedy, Kennedy-moon, moon-Pacific, Pacific-Houston. And it was not counting the 11 days in flight. Well that’s $25 a day.”

Duke said that could have been a new set of golf clubs. When he got his check back it said government quarters and meals were furnished so that part was deducted. The per diem check turned into $13.75.

Duke cashed the check.

“We went for adventure and we went to explore—that’s why we went to the moon,” Duke said.

He said there were no second thoughts on the launch pad. However, the spacecraft began vibrating after the engines were lit. He described it as being on the business end of a 360-foot-long fishing pole with someone wiggling the end in their hand.

“I didn’t remember anybody telling me it was supposed to shake—at least shake that hard,” he said. “So I got a little excited and my heart was pounding.”

Later, he asked the flight surgeon what his heartbeat was at liftoff. He learned it was 144 beats per minute. So he asked about Commander Young’s heartbeat. It was 70.

“You can tell who the cool one was,” Duke said.

Leaving Earth’s orbit and 16,000 miles away, Duke took a photo of that blue sphere suspended in the blackness of space. Twenty-four men got to see the moon from that vantage point.

“It was awesome. It was breathtakingly beautiful as we looked back at the Earth,” he said of the memory. “And everywhere else you looked except for the moon and the sun was black. It’s always daylight in space so you don’t see any stars. No planets are visible. … It’s just black because the sun is shining all the time.”

Duke spent three days in the mountains of the moon.

“I was so excited. I never lost my enthusiasm—’I’m on the moon, I’m on the moon’—You just couldn’t contain your enthusiasm and the wonder and the beauty of the moon. It’s all mostly gray in color but very bright reflection from the sunlight and so you have shades of gray.”

The topography was up and down with craters everywhere. They walked in the fine powder of the moon dust, created from pulverized rock.

“A day on the moon from sunrise to sunset is two weeks,” Duke said. “So we were there in the early morning on the moon day. … Everywhere we walked we left footprints. … We didn’t want to come back.”

With the footprints, Duke said they never worried about getting lost. On the eighth day, they started home. It took three days to return to Earth. He remembers the spectacular fireball as the spacecraft came back to the atmosphere traveling more than 26,000 mph.

“It was like being in a furnace but you are not on fire,” he said.

The moonwalker was back home. Duke was 36. He’d already climbed to the top of the ladder. He thought everything would be great. “Peace, prosperity and success was mine,” Duke said. Then the Apollo mission was over and he wondered where the next challenge would be that could tap into the drive that took him to the moon.

But the enthusiasm of his moon journey eluded Duke after he returned home.

“I had no peace in my life, you just couldn’t rest on your laurels, if you will. I climbed to the top and yet it wasn’t satisfying,” he said, adding his all-American family with his wife and two sons looked great on the outside but life was not peace and joy and harmony. “I was not a good husband. Our marriage was on the rocks we were steaming toward a divorce in 1972. I was a drill instructor dad. … I was really hard on them. I had an explosive temper and no peace. So you can imagine the turmoil in our house. And yet we put on this show for the rest of the world.”

Every Sunday they went through the motions of going to church.

Duke said by 1975 his wife was on the verge of suicide when some wonderful people came to their church for a weekend visit. Ordinary people who glowed, he said, and had Jesus at the center of their lives.

Duke said his wife’s faith moved her life from sadness to joy. While he described having his own eyes set on making money and not on his family, he credits a weekend focused on Scripture in helping make a major change in his life, rebuilding both his marriage and his relationship with his sons. Even through tough times, he said they plow on and trust God.

“Prayer works,” Duke said. “God is listening to our prayers.”

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