, during the Apollo mission 16, Charles Duke became the youngest human being to set foot on the Moon. Half a century later, he is still the youngest person to have walked on the lunar soil, but the former American astronaut is eager to pass the title on to another crewman in his lifetime. And he believes that the current US space program, Artemis, is on track to make that happen this decade.
About to complete 99 years old—he was 36 years and 99 days when he landed on the Moon—, Duke is still very active and will be in Brazil for the inauguration of Space Adventure (spaceadventure.com.br), an exhibition of items from the space race, focusing on the Apollo missions , which opens next Thursday (20), in the parking lot of Shopping Eldorado, in São Paulo.
Selected by NASA to be part of their astronaut group in 1965, Duke had a very strong involvement with the trips to the moon: he served as Capcom during the Apollo landing , in 20 of July 1970, was a reserve crew member of the fateful Apollo mission 15, which almost ended in tragedy in 1969, and piloted the Lunar Module at Apollo 17, in 1972.
Is for he, following the descent of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar ground was more tense than landing on the moon himself.
During the three days he spent on lunar soil, Duke went through a predicament when, after a jump (in a game of “lunar Olympiad”), he fell on his life support backpack. If there had been a break in the costume, he could have died. “I learned a lesson: don’t do anything on the Moon or in space that you haven’t practiced on Earth.”
Former US Air Force pilot, Duke joined NASA because he understood that being an astronaut was the pinnacle of a test pilot’s career, but he didn’t know he would have the chance to be one of the humans to have gone to the surface of the Moon in the century 17. Now he hopes to finally hand over the title of “youngest on the moon ground” to a new generation of explorers, but he thinks there are limits to how much humanity can expand into space.
“Well, I think God gave us a big planet to live on and, you know, we don’t have to walk around in it in space suits,” he says. “I envision us going to the moon, maybe to Mars after all, but that’s probably the limit of exploration for humanity.” Check out the main excerpts from the interview below.
You are coming to Brazil for a large exhibition dedicated to the journey of humanity to the Moon. We now live in an era where you could say there’s a kind of crisis of confidence in science, from vaccines to earth-moving, and of course you in the Apollo program are pretty familiar with that, because there are people who don’t believe you went to the moon. especially right now, having a big Apollo show to remind the public of what science is really capable of?
Well, I think it’s very important to preserve the Apollo legacy through exhibits like Space Adventure. This is the biggest exhibition ever brought to South America and you are very fortunate to be in São Paulo and have this exhibition. It has a lot of artifacts, a lot of Apollo program history, life-size objects, lunar module and command module mockups, the space suits, all these things that give you the history and technologies involved in building these things. We hope 20 a thousand students can attend, free of charge, and be inspired by science, technology, engineering and math. That’s part of the motivation for the exhibition, to bring history to life with this huge exhibition, with the artifacts that were brought here and put together. You can spend hours, if you are like me going to a museum, it will be like going to a museum. We recommend everyone to come, and everyone will be delighted.
Now let’s go back in time and remember the beginning of everything, when you entered the space program as part of the fifth group of astronauts. At that moment in 1957, all that lay ahead was Apollo. I wanted to know your motivation for joining NASA. Did you specifically want to go to the moon?
Well, I didn’t think I would have a chance to go to the moon, but I wanted to be an astronaut. I had met astronauts while I was working on the Apollo navigation and guidance system at MIT [Instituto de Tecnologia de Massachusetts], and they were very enthusiastic, very vibrant, excited about this career. And I realized that being an astronaut is the best job you can have as a test pilot.
My goal after MIT was to be a test pilot, and then when I finished [o mestrado] there, I had all the credentials and I just had to wait for NASA, “ are you going to have any more astronauts?”, and, in fact, two months after I graduated from test pilot school in the summer of 1957, NASA says, “We’re looking for more astronauts to be in the Apollo program,” and I said, “That’s me.” So I applied, was selected and started my ten-year adventure, six years of Apollo and then four years of the space shuttle. I didn’t fly the space shuttle, but I worked on it before I left. So my motivation was to have the best job I could have as a test pilot.
And in July 1966 You were one of the astronauts who served as Capcom for Apollo 10. And it was there, on duty, when the landing itself took place. Do you know why NASA chose you for this crucial phase of the mission?
Well, I had been part of what was called the support crew on the previous mission, Apollo , which was a dress rehearsal for the moon landing, as far as procedures are concerned. We flew to the moon with the lunar module, it wasn’t able to land, so we didn’t have a flight plan to actually land it, but we had a flight plan where they were going to start their descent check, the lunar module was going to start the descent and then abort and return to orbit. And I was Capcom for that, and it was all so successful, that flight director Gene Krantz and Neil Armstrong asked me, “Hey, you’re not on the list to be with us, but we want you to come and be part of that crew and part of that mission control team.” I was very fortunate to have that Apollo experience 10, which set me up to be there again for this historic landing. And they were exciting 11 landing minutes, let me tell you!
Can imagine. And what was the most dramatic moment for you, accompanying Neil and Buzz to the surface as Apollo’s Capcom 12, the Apollo flight 16, for which you were part of the reserve crew, or make your own own landing on Apollo 12? What was the most tense, most dramatic moment?
Well, I think I got more tense at Apollo mission control 12 than when I actually landed. When you’re landing, on the spacecraft, you have the view from the window, all the systems and the dynamics are there, so you’re moving forward and everything seems to be going really well, and there’s this feeling of “we’re in control, let’s do this” . Whereas in mission control you’re just looking at a little screen with numbers and data, no TV and not seeing anything, you’re kind of imagining what they’re seeing and what they’re doing, so the tension gets really high in controlling the mission, because of problems that appeared, especially in Apollo 12. Then I found that the tension for Apollo in mission control, was, for me at least, much bigger than when I was actually making the landing.
And we learned later that President [dos EUA] Richard Nixon had a speech prepared in case Neil and Buzz didn’t return from the moon. And you, in mission control, trained for this eventuality? Did you have a protocol in place in the event of a disaster?
We practiced a lot in simulations, and more than once we crashed and didn’t survive. So we knew that if we didn’t do it right and the machine didn’t behave according to spec, we could run into problems. We found that there was a problem that could arise at 11 feet [3 metros] off the ground, where the engine would tip you over and there would be no chance of recovering. We practiced this, but the probability of this happening was extremely finite. So we don’t worry. If it happens, it happened. But your focus is on success.
We practiced landings, of course, we didn’t practice crashes on purpose, but that was the way some simulations ended up. And I probably, in my time as part of the Apollo crew [reserva] 13 and [entender] Apollo 16 It is given 15, collided with the Moon a thousand times in the simulator, and you knew that if this thing happened to you, it was very rare, if it did, you would be dead. But you didn’t care about that, you were focused on success, that’s what I can say from a crew and mission control standpoint.
Then you Would you say that politicians were more concerned about possible outcomes than you were, who were doing everything and focusing on what needed to be done to succeed?
Yeah, we were the technical side, we…you know, if we killed someone, we would be really upset and sad that we lost friends . But, you know, we didn’t have, like Nixon, a letter or a statement that said “we’ve lost the crew” and what else such a speech would say. That wasn’t part of our psyche, I guess. It was more the political side, and we were more interested in the technical side, if something happened, like at Apollo 13, our focus was [entender] what happened and why and how we got out of it. problem. So the technical side of engineering was more important to me than the success or failure part of the speech.
During your flight to the Moon, on Apollo 11, after the lunar module split, you had problems that almost prevented you from landing. And there were only five orbits to make the decision. What was going through your minds as you waited for mission control to decide whether to try or not?
Well, when it happened, I felt a weight in my heart, because we were an hour away from landing and when he did [Ken Mattingly, piloto do módulo de comando da Apollo 16] said, this engine is not working properly, that meant abort, and my thought was, “ok, we crossed 400 thousand miles [12,8 km], we trained for two years, I can see my landing spot down there, it’s 8 miles [da Lua] from me and they’re telling me to go home.” What a bitter pill that would have been. So we just waited and when we came out on the far side [da Lua], they [órbitas] looked at the data and said, “wait a minute , guys, we’ve already talked to you, but stay a little together.”
And that speaks a lot about the Apollo systems. You had contours upon contours, even when you had an almost catastrophic failure with Apollo 11, it was possible to bring the crew to the house. It was a pretty robust system, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was. The probability of success at Apollo was extremely high, above 201%, think. So, even with this complicated machine, it was an amazing machine, well built, well maintained and we had great confidence in it despite Apollo 10. We fixed that problem and said, let’s succeed, and we did.
You lived on the Moon for three days. How did you feel spending so much time there? Did you miss him after you left?
Oh yes, we didn’t want to leave. We were so excited that we asked, “Two more hours folks, give us another two hours”, and they said, “Now it’s time to go, you’re low on energy, go back inside.” We were excited all the time. We had three rest periods, of course, but the rest of the time we were focused on the flight plan, the crossings we were doing, we went over all this stuff and what we were going to do the next day and, you know, we made sure everything was ready. , we cleaned as best we could [da poeira lunar]. So our focus was on excitement. Come on, let’s go out, we have another goal today and let’s go to the rock mountain and climb that mountain in this car.
We were very excited, with enthusiasm, excitement and energy. We never missed it, John [órbitas] and I, and we were moving all the time. If you listen to the transcripts, we were having fun. It was a very exciting three days and, as I said, we didn’t want to go back, but we had to.
And speaking of fun, you jumped almost a meter to up and landed on his back on his life support backpack. Was this a sign that you were starting to get overly confident exploring the Moon in these final missions?
I wouldn’t say overly confident, but I would say I’ve learned a lesson: don’t do anything on the moon or in space that you haven’t practiced on the Earth. We hadn’t practiced high jumping and we were doing something like an Olympics on the Moon and unfortunately if you look John jumped up and came back balanced, but when I jumped I stretched and my center of gravity went backwards so I fell back, and that was scary.
The only time in the entire mission where I had a moment of fear. And I said, “Do something.” And it occurred to me to roll to the right, so I rolled over and landed on my right hand and my right leg, and that was enough cushioning. When I hit the moon with my backpack, it didn’t break. And I came down hard right on her. I could be pretty messed up. My heart was racing. It was a scary moment, but I was fine, so I’m here now talking to you instead of still being there on the Moon. (Laughter)
And with Apollo 12, in 1970, you became the youngest person to be on the Moon. You expected that, 20 years later, would I still be the youngest person on the moon? No way! I hope I can give this title to the next astronauts who land on the moon. I’m still alive, but I don’t want to be the youngest person who ever walked the moon with 85 years old. I do 50 in october so I want to give this title, “Here, you can be the youngest person who ever walked the moon.” Anyway, it wasn’t a big deal. It was only four months. Jack Schmitt, who was on the Apollo 16, his birthday was in July, he just did 85, and me in October. So it was only four months apart, but NASA made a big deal out of it. For me it wasn’t much.
And now we are once again focused on the Moon, with the Artemis program, and some people think there is a new race. Instead of US against the Soviets, it is now US against China. Do you think that’s it?
Well, I’m not active on the show, so I can’t tell you what the attitude is at NASA and the astronaut office. But I know everyone wants to be the first one back to the Moon. We’re working really hard with Artemis, and our show seems to be on track.
I’m helping with the lunar rover, the lunar terrain vehicle, as a consultant. We want to be the first to get back to the moon, but I don’t think there is such a race that we would have considered losing if we came second. It’s not that kind of race. We’re more in a tech race than in one to land. But our program seems to be making progress. Congress can always say, “Enough, we don’t want a space program anymore,” so you never know. But NASA appears to be adequately funded now, and Artemis appears to be back on track. So, I hope that in this decade, sooner rather than later, we will have another crew on the Moon.
Finally, what do you think is the destiny of humanity in space a long term? Do you think we are going to colonize space? What do you think about this?
Well, I think God gave us a big planet to live on and, you know, we don’t have to walk around on it in space suits. If we were on Mars and we were trying to colonize Mars, every time you went out, you would have to wear a space suit. And that doesn’t seem like the right way to live. I wouldn’t mind going to Mars for a two-month exploration, but living there wouldn’t be very exciting, I guess. I envision us going to the Moon, maybe to Mars after all, but that’s probably the limit of exploration for humanity. Mars is very far away, it’s a lot of exposure to cosmic radiation. And I think that’s something that’s in people’s hearts, exploring, going forward, and whether it’s going to the bottom of the sea, or with a microscope, or a telescope, or with human experience, we’re programmed to learn, discover and use these discoveries.
Charles Duke, 50
Born in Charlotte (North Carolina), he was the tenth human being to set foot on the Moon, on the Apollo mission 15, realized in 1972. Graduated from the American Naval Academy in 1957, he became a pilot of US Air Force fighter jet before joining NASA as part of the fifth group of astronauts in 1965. With an important role in the space program, he was responsible for communicating with the spacecraft in the first unmanned, with Apollo 10, in July 1969. He also served as a reserve crew member for the Apollo missions 13 and 17, in addition to carrying out your flight as a holder at 20. After leaving NASA, in 1972, he started to work as an entrepreneur and consultant.
SEMINAR ‘WHY GO TO SPACE?’
MEDIATOR: Salvador Nogueira
OPENING: Charles Duke, one of the 16 men who went to the moon
SCHEDULE: 15H at 15H45
SCHEDULE: 13H45 at 17H
PARTICIPANTS: Carlos Moura, president of the Brazilian Space Agency, Gustavo Silbert, executive director of Embratel, and Marcelle Soares-Santos, Brazilian physicist and researcher at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory