General Charles Duke led a successful astronautical career that landed him on the moon in 1972. Meanwhile, his wife Dottie struggled with depression. In this moving presentation, the Duke’s share how their personal struggles led them to find meaning and purpose in life.
Here is Charlie:
Dottie and I are delighted to be back and to have this opportunity to share a little of our life with you in the next few minutes. I was an astronaut for ten years. I trained in Apollo for about seven of those years, and I had some great exciting adventures. I was in space for eleven days, on the moon for three days, and I when I got back I was so excited it took me twelve days to tell my boss what it was like.
I must admit that most people think that astronauting is a pretty easy deal. You see the astronauts on T.V. and they wave to the crowd and they’re launched to fame and fortune –is the impression that most people get. Well, fame is fleeting in the astronaut program. On the fifth anniversary of my mission, two people remembered: my wife and my momma. On my tenth anniversary only my momma remembered.
So we did not go for the fame. Nor did we go for fortune. Despite what the National Inquirer said –do you have National Inquirer here in Canada?– Well, it’s a big deal, you know, at the supermarket everybody buys one. Or, they hope everybody buys one as they check out. Anyway, they had an article about we made a million dollars going to the moon. That wasn’t quite right.
I was a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force. And I got paid what every other lieutenant colonel got paid. It wasn’t a big salary but it was adequate. So, we didn’t get a million bucks for going to the moon, though the trip to the moon is a little extra pay in military terminology. A trip to the moon is temporary duty. And so they pay you per diem when you’re on temporary duty. And so we had $25 a day per diem, we were gone for eleven days, at $275. However, government quarters and meals were furnished so they deducted that part. I tried to get them to pay me a nickel a mile for travel. They said government transportation was furnished also.
Well, none of us in the astronaut program volunteered for fame or fortune. If everybody was like me they volunteered for the thrill of adventure and sense of exploration –to see what it was like out there with your own eyes and your own feelings. And also have that adventure of sitting on top of a Saturn rocket that was 360 feet tall, almost 120 meters, 11 meters in diameter and weighed six and a half million pounds as it sat on the launch pad. That was going to be some ride.
Now I’ve flown a lot of different airplanes in my life, but this was going to be the ultimate ride in an airplane. And so, after six years of training, John Young and Ken Maddenly and I were sitting on top of that Saturn rocket. And I was on the right side and John was on the left and Maddenly was in the center. And in Apollo at that moment you can’t see outside because the windows were covered over –except for one window in the hatch which was right over the guy in the center seat, Maddenly. And he could see out. I could look over this way and see back out to just a little bit of what’s called the white room, which is around the spacecraft when you get in. Well, when they pulled that back away I was busy working a few minutes before liftoff and Maddenly said, “I want to tell you guys one thing: There’s the moon right outside the window –they got us pointed in the right direction.”
And sure enough, right on schedule at T minus 8 seconds before liftoff they ignited the engines and there were five big engines at the bottom of this rocket that was going to lift us off the launch pad. It took eight seconds for them to check it all out, to make sure it was going to work right. At that moment at zero, if everything was going right they released it. It was clamped to the launch pad and they just let go with these big clamps and it slowly started to move.
When they lit those engines for eight seconds, you just sit there and –you can imagine the engines at the bottom, shaking, and by the time it goes up to the 360 feet at the top it gets there and its shaking pretty good. And I didn’t remember anybody telling me it was supposed to shake. And I was a little nervous. We were holding on.
It was like an elevator going up at first, but very slowly. And then as we burned out our fuel, of course, we accelerated. And the first stage, which was the big one, lasted for two minutes and 41 seconds and took us to an altitude of about 50 km, about 8,000 km per hour of velocity, and we had burned up over four and a half million pounds of fuel in the first two minutes and forty seconds.
And we were on our way. A few seconds later they uncovered the windows and we could see out and look down at this crystal blue ocean of the Atlantic. And then it faded off into the lighter blue of the atmosphere. The upper atmosphere is sort of white, and that fades off into the blackness of space. An incredible sight as we were going in, head down or inverted into orbit.
We circled the earth for one and a half revolutions, which took us two and a half hours. And that took us over Australia and we accelerated to 25,000 miles per hour, about 40,000 km per hour. And we were on our way to the moon.
And that was a very critical maneuver. You’re shooting at a target that’s shooting through space and it’s going to take you three days to get there, and so you had to make sure you aimed it just right, with the right velocity so you got there at the right spot. And the right spot was 60 miles above the moon. Now a 60 mile error in 240,000 miles is not much of a margin for error. And if you miss it short it spoils your whole day and –we were concerned about that and so we made sure it pointed in the right direction and sure enough everything worked right and we were on our way. We had a few little small tweaks on the way out to make sure we got there exactly on schedule. And three days later we arrived.
On the way out to the moon we were busy with various experiments and things like that –that I won’t bore you with. Some of them I couldn’t even pronounce. But on the way out, suffice it to say, we had a little spacecraft that was about as wide as from here to the end of the table. We were floating, the three of us, in there and it gets very cozy after a couple of days as you can imagine. It’s not only your office, but it’s your bedroom, bathroom –it’s everything right there, and so you don’t have any secrets.
And when you take off your spacesuits, instead of three people you got six people in there. You see, and these things are all floating around in there and you try to get them stuffed out of the way, and arms float out and fly away. And so we were in there in zero gravity just floating around just having a wonderful time.
So we arrived at the moon on the third day of our mission, and right on schedule. And we went into orbit on the dark side of the moon. It was very eerie, to be honest with you, because –Are we there, really? The engine ignites and you have to slow down to go into lunar orbit, and this is all in darkness. And I mean really dark. There’s just nothing out there.
The engine shut down and the computer says you’re in orbit. Well, are you really? All of a sudden we had daylight! On earth when you have sunrise in space it just sort of starts to glow, the atmosphere just gets brighter and brighter and brighter and then there’s the sun. But in the moon there IS no atmosphere and it’s dark –and then the next second it’s light.
And then we looked out the window and there was the most dramatic sight I’ve ever seen, and that was the gray, barren backside of the moon. Which was an eerie feeling but yet an exciting feeling as we floated, glided silently just over that surface and looked down and there was no life whatsoever.
We orbited the moon for a day while we got everything lined up right so we could over our landing site. And then right on schedule the next day, on the fourth day of the mission, John and I got into the lunar module and we started to separate –and we did separate and then we started to power up to get everything ready to go for our landing.
And then things started to break. You know, everything –50 thousand parts– all made by the lowest bidder. You expect a few problems. Now, I say that in jest, really. I’ve flown 25 different airplanes in my military career, all fighters, different models and makes. And those two spacecraft in Apollo were the two finest things I’ve ever strapped into. They were really tremendous machines. They were made by the lowest bidder but they weren’t cheap. They were well-engineered.
But anyway, we did have some problems. So we got delayed a little bit, not for our spacecraft but for the other spacecraft, one hour before we were to land on the moon. Ken Maddenly, who was to orbit the moon alone, said, “There’s something wrong with the engine.” Now that gets your attention, because that’s your ride home.
It looked like an abort to us, and you can imagine how bitterly disappointed we were to be eight miles from our landing site. I mean, I could look down and eight miles beneath us as we orbited the moon was where I was to land. And I trained three years rigorously and I’d come 240,000 miles. I was one hour before I was to land and they were telling us “get ready to come home.” So you can imagine the disappointment that John and I experienced, but fortunately the teamwork and the ability of NASA and all of our scientists and engineers came to bear on the problem and six hours later they said, “We got it fixed, you guys are clear to give it a go.” So we started down.
And we landed. And our landing spot –from then on it was all downhill. It seemed like everything worked and everything went great. We had a tremendous three days on the moon. Our landing spot on the moon –as you look at the moon from the earth it was right in the middle of the full moon. It was called the Descartes highlands. It was the mountains of the moon. It would be like landing in the top of the Rockies out here if we had landed on earth.
And we landed in a big valley that was about 16 km across and all you could see was just sort of the tops of the hills, which were about 300 meters above our landing spot at the top. And everything on the moon –there are no sharp angles. You’ve watched the Star Trek and the Star Wars and all those movies and everything is evil looking and all sharp and angular. But on the moon it’s not that way at all. It’s all smooth and rounded. And so it’s just sort of rounded, general rolling terrain except for the individual rocks and things. And they were angular, but the general impression was just the rounded mountains that came down and then rolled into valley and then the valley rolled away to the horizon.
And it was mostly gray in color, but some of the rocks were white and some were gray. And it was just tremendously exciting to stand on the moon. I can’t even put it into words the excitement that I experienced as I stood there looking across this dramatic landscape, which was absolutely lifeless.
There is no atmosphere on the moon. Never has been, so there is no life. There never HAS been any life. And yet we felt like we belonged. I felt not afraid, it was a feeling of belonging. And a peacefulness and a serenity there that was hard to describe because it was hard to believe you had that feeling because it’s a hostile environment. Your suit split open and you’re dead instantly in this vacuum. We just felt like we were supposed to be there. We did not feel like we were intruders in this foreign, foreign land.
And we looked out at the horizon and could look up into the sky and the sky was just jet black. It was a blackness you could feel like you could reach out and touch. The sun was shining brightly all the time we were on the moon. For, a day on the moon from sunrise to sunset is two weeks long and so we were there always during daylight, as we explored the lunar surface in our little car and on foot.
And so we did our experiments and we did all of the things that we had to do and collected all of the moon rocks and the dirts and the soils and all of that. It’s not really dirt like we have down here it’s more just crushed rock actually. And the moon is covered with dust –a very fine dustlike powder– and everywhere you walked or everywhere you drove you left your footprints and so you never worried about getting lost. You just had to turn around and follow your tracks back and it took you back home again, or to your lunar module.
One time we were driving along and I had this dream about running across another set of tracks up there. And John said, “What do we do if we run across a set of tracks up here?” Fortunately, we didn’t run across any other tracks. So there is no little green men up there and we didn’t see anything like UFO’s or anything like that.
To see the earth I had to look overhead and right over my head about 240,000 miles away was the earth. And as I looked up at the earth from the moon I could see a half earth and it was mostly white, with a little blue. There were a lot cloud cover and snow cover during that time of the year. So it mostly was white to us with a little blue. To be honest you don’t see any of the continents even from the moon. It’s just the blue and the white of the earth –which is the oceans, of course, and the clouds and the snow. And so it was a real adventure.