This article was first published in Spaceflight magazine (Vol 40, no. 5, May 1998) and is put here after kind permission of the British Interplanetary Society


The Moonwalker who Walked With the Son

An Interview with Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke


By Thanassis Vembos

From left: T. Vembos, Charlie Duke, Dotty Duke


To meet and interview an astronaut is a rare occasion for a journalist here in Greece. Especially when he is an astronaut of the glorious Apollo days. Charles Moss Duke, the tenth man to walk on the Moon, visited Greece last autumn [1997] during a recreational trip, among with his wife, Dotty. Duke responded to a long-time invitation of an old friend, Mr Takis Karathanassis, a Greek Air Force retired officer. After several days of vacation in mainland Greece and the Greek islands, Duke stayed for a few days in Athens, where he made a public speech at Eugenides Foundation -where Athens Planetarium is accommodated -in the evening of September the 22nd. Duke proved to be an excellent speaker, mesmerising the Greek audience with his vivid and striking description of the historic experience he had, twenty five years ago. The great amphitheatre of the Foundation was brimming with people. This fact probably proves that the feat of walking on the Moon was an achievement superseding boundaries of time -since the great majority of the Greek audience was consisted by people who must have been attending elementary school at the time of Apollo 16 flight! Duke shared his memories with us, gave numerous interviews and tried to answer with details every question of the audience -in spite of how much superfluous or dumb the question was. I had the chance to interview Duke, even though -due to the time pressure- our conversation was not as long as I wanted it to be.

-Today, 25 years after your flight how do you feel about it? What are your memories in retrospective?

* Well, it's been twenty five years but it seems very real, very refresh. I still remember every detail, every step, I am still excited about what we've accomplished and I enjoy sharing my memories and my experiences with people.

-Like you did yesterday...

* That's right. And every time I do it, I feel enthusiastic so the whole experience is still vivid.

- Let us talk a little bit about your religious conversion. What were the reasons for that?

* I was a Baptist before I went to the Moon. I did not feel the presence of Lord on the surface of the Moon. As a matter of fact, I didn't even found Him in church. But the real shock came afterwards, after my return to Earth. After leaving NASA my wife Dotty asked me to go on a two day Bible study at a ranch near our home, at New Braunfels, Texas. We started at Genesis and headed for Revelation. As I sat in an easy chair with a cup of coffee in my hand and the Bible in my lap, the scales suddenly fell from my eyes. I saw that God had loved Charlie Duke from the time He created the world. And then I was born again. I felt no blastoff into eternity but I knew from God's Word, that by believing. He came into my heart. I got hungry for the Word of God from that moment on. After Apollo 16 I used to say that one could live 10,000 years and never have an experience like walking on the Moon. But the excitement and satisfaction of that walk doesn't begin to compare with my walk with Jesus, a walk that lasts forever -
a walk with the Son.

- Cosmonaut Gherman Titov claimed proudly after its return to Earth that he "did not see God in space". What do you have to say?

* I also did not see God in space. But that doesn't prove He's not there. There is air in this room, but we don't see it. Its existence is proved by the observation of its effects. There is electricity in these lamps, but we cannot see electricity. But we see its results. In the same way, we do not see God, but we see His effects on the world.

- Isn't there any kind of "conflict" between Charlie Duke the astronaut and Charlie Duke the religious convert?

* No, not at all. This planet, the Moon, space, the other heavenly bodies were the creation of God. He also created the laws of Physics. We can use these laws and the technology to get to know the world and space. There is no conflict. Also, my basic background is one of an engineer, a man having to do with technology, applied physics. I'm not of a theoretical physicist.

- Is it true that during an excursion with the lunar rover, you found yourself driving in a place you had seen in a dream before your flight?

* Well, yes. In my dream John Young and I were driving the lunar rover up to the north and we as we came across a ridge, there was a set of tracks out there in front of us. We asked Houston if we were allowed to follow the tracks. Houston said yes. So, about an hour later we found another lunar rover with two guys on it that looked like me and John. I felt kind of comfortable. I took parts from this other vehicle, to show to the people down at Houston. Now, when being actually on the Moon, we were going north towards our objective which was North Ray crater and as we went over the hill, I recognized, generally, the little valley that I've seen in a dream before. But in the dream there was a set of tracks. Of course the tracks were not there! It was so vivid.. Yeah I've seen this before, or something very similar in the dream I had. The dream was so vivid that when we were landing I looked out of the window to the north to see if there were any tracks on the surface of the Moon! The landscape was very similar to what I have seen in my dream.

- Do you have any explanation for the whole story?

* I think it was just a coincidence. And I cannot say it was exactly like the dream. On the Moon every landscape is more or less the same.

- How did you feel after the cancellation of the final three Apollo flights and the termination of the lunar program? Was it a wise decision, since America literally sacrificed all of Apollo infrastructure forever?

* I was very disappointed with the cancellation of the last missions. I understand the reasons they did it, why they did it, so I accepted those reasons. I was disappointed. I knew we had two good spacecraft ready for flight, two good Saturn rockets, there were all paid for, we were completely ready to do the missions. But they decided to cancel it and were basic reasons for that. I accepted that. I thought it was a wrong decision to give the money for other programs.

- What did you think about president Bush administration's initiative for a manned lunar return and a flight to Mars? Why this initiative faltered?

* I thought president Bush's initiative for studing and funding a return to the Moon was a good decision. I think we need a moonbase and eventually we're gonna have a scientific outpost on the Moon that will be manned by a crew of astronauts. I still think that's a good objective. The Mars missions we have accomplished recently, the Pathfinder landing and Mars Global Surveyor orbital insertion are wonderful, I think that's something that we need. I see a balance between manned flights and unmanned ones. And the unmanned missions lead us to Mars just like the unmanned missions led us to the Moon. We sent unmanned probes there before we landed. I think we need a commitment, as an international space community, to go to Mars some time in the next century.

- But why there is so much less interest and political will about manned space exploration?

* Well, I think it has to do with the evolution of space technology and space travel. It's the same kind of thing we are going through now that we went through in the early days of aviation, the era of enthusiasm, when for example Lindberg flew solo over the Atlantic Ocean. Every time there is a first, people are excited about. But then it becomes routine, it becomes daily operations and that's where we are now in space. It does not attract so much attention from the press and the media, it's not that much exciting as it was. The public says: "we have done this before, so what?". But I think we will capture this interest again as we send somebody to Mars or back to the Moon again.

- So you think that "Apollo era" is over for good...

* Conceptually yes. It's something we have done before and if we go over it again, will not be the same. Maybe not exciting for the public but will be for the participating astronauts.

- Do you think that it's better to create a manned outpost on the Moon, or on Mars, or vice versa?

* That's a difficult decision. It's gonna be easier to return to the Moon. It's closer and it's easier to land. We will not have special problems with weather conditions, since there is no atmosphere -just extremes in temperature that we will have to overcome. Also the Moon is a very stable platform and it will be a very good place for long term scientific study of the heavens with telescopes and other instruments. Eventually we will land on Mars and do manned exploration, but it will be a very long time before we establish a manned scientific base there.

- Do you have any other astronauts as close friends?

* Oh yeah, we are all still close friends, we are all still alive and we have reunions every once and a while. It was a small fraternity of man and we still have very good friendship bonds between us which were established during the Apollo days. In fact when we get back from our trip in the first part of October, there is a reunion in the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida and we'll all be there for that. So we look forward to this reunion.

- What are your activities now in life?

* I'm retired from the military. They have to do with space only occasionally, not very much. I dedicate thirty per cent of my time to Christian work, I do motivational speeches. I represent companies in promotions, I just did one for Mercedes Benz. I am enjoying my family, my children and my grandchildren... finally! [laugh]

- Do you read science fiction, or see science fiction movies?

* I enjoy science fiction movies. The "Star Wars" trilogy was a very exciting movie. I loved that. Also "2001". I haven't seen "Contact" or "Independence Day" or any other of the recent movies but I look forward to that. I don't read science fiction pretty much but I enjoy the films. Arthur Clarke was probably one of my favourite writers. We had the chance to meet him during the Apollo days and I enjoyed his works -which I read many years ago.

Duke on the Moon (1971)