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In April 1966, 30-year U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and test pilot Charlie Duke was in the right place at the right time when NASA was selecting 19 new astronauts.
A little more than six years later – on April 21, 1972 – Duke became the 10th and youngest man to step foot on the moon as a crew member for Apollo 16. Gravity never held him down. Just like the Mercury astronauts, Duke had the “right stuff.”
“I was very fortunate,” he said. “When I was in high school and was growing up here in Lancaster, I had parents, relatives, teachers, mentors and friends who encouraged me. My brother and I were encouraged that we could make something of our lives. Nothing is impossible in our country. For a guy from the little town of Lancaster to go to the moon, who would’ve thought it?”
As far as eighth-grade A.R. Rucker Middle School science and social studies teacher Jennifer Gillette is concerned, Duke still has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
The moonwalker dropped by the school’s media center Friday to visit one of Gillette’s classes, which just happened to include Anna Scott, who has a family connection.
Anna is the granddaughter of Dr. Bill Duke, Charlie Duke’s twin brother.
“We just started studying a unit on astronomy, so his timing couldn’t have been better,” Gillette said. “This is a very unique opportunity for these students to meet someone who is truly a historical figure from Lancaster.”
Then as if it were another omen, within about 20 feet of where Duke was standing hung a ceiling banner of an Apollo astronaut standing on the moon.
Duke said the few men who’ve walked on the moon didn’t get there by way of luck. Focus, discipline and determination got them that unique opportunity.
Duke said being an astronaut isn’t the glamorous and adventurous job some think it is.
“The training is very intense,” he said. “Most people think being an astronaut is waving (in parades) and going on to fame and fortune. But in truth, it’s a very demanding job and you’re working 60 to 72 hours a week.
“Today, you see these guys up there working on the space station and say to yourself, ‘That looks pretty easy, I’d like to do that.’ What you don’t see is the 500 hours they spent underwater in a water tank practicing and learning how to make what they’re doing look easy,” Duke said.
Duke talked about space flight, moon walking and moon rovers, and he also showed a short video of Apollo 16 mission footage, including when he dropped $10 million of scientific equipment on the lunar surface and his trouble trying to pick up a moon rock.
Duke spent 72 hours on the moon with fellow astronaut John Young. They were on the surface of the moon for a little more than 20 hours on the surface, while Thomas Mattingly orbited overhead in the command module.
In their 20 hours of moonwalks, Duke said it didn’t take long for moon dust – with the consistency of graphite and smell of gunpowder – to turn their 300-plus pound spacesuits from white to gray.
“If you want an $8 million car with a dead battery, I know where you can find one,” he said, referring to the moon rover he and Young used while on the moon.
Duke also talked about how America benefited from the explosion of technology that accompanied the space program.
“When I was a kid, black-and-white TV sets were something special,” Duke said. “In 50 years to see how far we’ve come is just astonishing. All of that technology was rooted in the space program.
When Duke asked the 70-plus students how many of them had iPods, hands shot up around the media center.
“A 16-GB (gigabyte) iPod has 200,000 times the memory of our Apollo computers,” Duke said. “To see the advances made one generation later is amazing. Our computer had 80K of memory. You can’t even turn on an iPod with 80K of memory and it fits in your pocket. My Blackberry does more than our Apollo computers did.”
Duke said whenever he’s asked why America spent so much money on the moon, his answer is always the same.
“We didn’t spend one dime on the moon,” he said. “It was all spent in the United States of America with 400,000 people working on a program that took us there. Today, y’all get to enjoy the results of the technology that put us on the moon. That was a great investment for our country.”
The notion that he may be speaking to a future astronaut never gets lost on Duke, who came to Lancaster this weekend for his induction into the Lancaster County Boy Scouts Hall of Fame on Friday night.
Duke, and his wife, Dottie, now live in New Braunfels, Texas. They have two children and nine grandchildren.
“I try to let all these kids know that no matter where you start, you can accomplish anything you want through hard work, good study habits and daring to dream big dreams. All you have to do is put your mind to it,” Duke said.
Contact features editor Greg Summers at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 283-1156