A man over the moon
The historic Apollo moon landings still marvel scientists a half-century later, but astronaut Charlie Duke says he’s also learned the heavens declare the glory of God
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Moments before astronaut Neil Armstrong steered a lunar module onto the surface of the moon, Charlie Duke wondered if he might have to abort one of the most spectacular missions of the 20th century.
While Armstrong hovered over the gray expanse, Duke was a quarter-million miles away, tucked behind a bank of computers at Apollo Mission Control Center in Houston. Duke was the capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for this phase of the mission. With a headset and a microphone, his job was to shepherd Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin onto the moon without catastrophe.
And Duke was worried.
As they descended, the astronauts were off course and headed toward a field of boulders. They began piloting the module to another landing spot, but that meant burning critical fuel supply. Duke had about 30 seconds to decide whether to call off the landing.
In mission control, scores of NASA engineers in skinny ties and pocket protectors fell nearly silent until they heard Armstrong’s voice: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
The moment was literally breathtaking.
“Roger, Tranquility,” Duke replied. “We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.” Duke says he meant it: He held his breath for the final few moments before the astronauts became the first men in history to touch down on another world.
For Duke, the greatest adventures were still ahead. He would go on to pilot the lunar module for the Apollo 16 mission in 1972 and become the youngest astronaut to walk on the moon at age 36. (He stills grins when he talks about zooming up lunar hills in a moon buggy known as the lunar rover.)
Still, despite the grand odyssey in a rocket to the moon, Duke says the most important moment came a few years later in his car on a highway near New Braunfels, Texas. After years of post-Apollo turmoil, Duke turned to his wife, Dotty, and said in his Southern drawl, “Darling, there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
This summer, July 20th marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that captivated millions of people and broadcast Armstrong’s famous words: “That’s one small step for man—one giant leap for mankind.”
Astronauts and astronomers hope remembrances of Apollo 11—and the eight other lunar missions in the Apollo program—ignite fresh interest in scientific careers and space exploration, even as private companies aspire to build space colonies or travel to Mars.
Duke hopes the awe-inspiring footage and images will also spark the kind of spiritual wonder he finally embraced years after his own voyage to the moon. Though he didn’t recognize it then, he marvels at it now when he remembers what he saw in space: “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
IN THE SUMMER OF 1969, the heavens declared the glory of God, but the streets below declared the sinfulness of man.
In August, cult followers of Charles Manson brutally murdered seven people over three days in Los Angeles. Later that month, hundreds of thousands of people packed into a farm near Woodstock, N.Y., for a music festival that also gloried in drug use and casual sex.
The year before wasn’t much better: In 1968, assassins murdered both Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, race riots broke out in more than 100 cities, and thousands died as the Vietnam War reached a frightening peak.
Americans craving good news huddled around television sets in December 1968 as NASA launched its Apollo 8 mission: Three American astronauts became the first men to orbit the moon. It was a critical step in a fevered race to meet the late President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
The accomplishment was extraordinary: It came just 65 years after the Wright brothers achieved the first airplane flight in history—flying for about 12 seconds and traveling a distance of about 120 feet at Kitty Hawk, N.C. In 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft traveled nearly 250,000 miles over three days to reach the moon’s orbit.
The Apollo 8 astronauts wondered at the moon they could see outside their windows, but they also marveled at the Earth dangling in the distance. In his book Rocket Men, author Robert Kurson writes about mission commander Frank Borman: “Earthrise was the most beautiful sight Borman had ever seen, the only color visible in all the cosmos.”
During a Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon’s orbit, the three astronauts described their experiences, and ended with a message. As television viewers watched live images of the moon move across their screens, astronaut Bill Anders began: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”
The astronauts took turns reading from Genesis Chapter 1: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the Heaven be gathered together unto one place. And let the dry land appear. … And God called the dry land Earth. … And God saw that it was good.”
Borman concluded: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with a good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.”
Kurson writes that inside mission control in Houston, no one moved: “Then, one after another, these scientists and engineers in Houston began to cry.” It was a fitting answer to the question Time magazine had posed on its cover two years before, when it asked, “Is God dead?”
FOR CHARLIE DUKE, God wasn’t dead, but He wasn’t important either.
The former Air Force pilot who grew up in South Carolina joined NASA in 1966 when the agency selected 19 men for its newest group of astronauts. Duke was devoted to science and self-reliance.
Neil Armstrong requested Duke serve as CAPCOM during the Apollo 11 lunar landing. (The CAPCOM position is always filled by another astronaut.) Duke was thrilled. He still remembers listening as astronaut Buzz Aldrin described the moon’s surface as “magnificent desolation.”
Duke was also pleased when NASA selected him as a backup crew member for the Apollo 13 mission. But the experience grew painful when he contracted measles and accidentally exposed the primary crew. NASA pulled one of the primary crew members, Ken Mattingly, from the flight. Duke felt terrible, but anxiety eclipsed guilt when the Apollo 13 mission nearly ended in tragedy after an internal explosion damaged the craft.
The astronauts in space and the team on the ground avoided disaster by devising a daring plan to return the spacecraft to Earth, jettisoning its mission to the moon. Mattingly, the astronaut pulled from the flight, later said his replacement, Jack Swigert, was the ideal astronaut to deal with the unexpected and grueling conditions the crew encountered.
Still, Duke says his NASA cohorts stuck him with a nickname he noticed when he climbed into his seat on the spacecraft for the Apollo 16 mission in April 1972. A small sign read, “TYPHOID MARY’S SEAT.” Ken Mattingly sat to his left.
Nearly 50 years after his own mission to the moon, Duke still sounds eager to talk about it. He remembers the approach. “I was elated when we pitched over at 7,000 feet altitude, and we recognized our landing site,” he says. “We saw two major craters. … We named them Lone Star and Gator.”
“The surface was spectacular,” he recalls. “It was the most dramatic desert I’ve ever seen. … Just the stark contrast between the bright lunar horizon and the bright lunar surface and the blackness of space.”
During the mission, Duke spent nearly 72 hours on the moon. He and fellow astronaut John Young took panoramic photos, conducted experiments, and cruised in the lunar rover. Duke says he felt like a young boy on Christmas morning, bouncing from surprise to surprise: “You just went running from rock to rock and crater to crater.”
The astronauts collected 213 pounds of rocks and soil samples, and Duke left something behind on the moon’s surface: a photo of himself and three people on Earth eagerly awaiting his return—his wife and two sons.
DUKE’S WIFE, Dotty, had been supportive of his career, but the long separations and the stress of his unusual job was difficult for her and their two young sons. When Duke returned from space and left NASA after the Apollo program ended, the stress grew worse and their marriage creaked under the strain.
He was successful in a new career, but Duke says it was a depressing time. “You’d basically climbed the ladder of success, and you’d reached the top. … Now what do you do?”
Lots of NASA marriages broke up during the Apollo program, and Duke thought his own might not survive. He and Dotty went to church, but he says they didn’t know God in a personal way. Duke didn’t think he needed Him.
During a weekend conference at their church, something changed for Dotty. “She said she’d tried everything but Jesus, so she prayed that if the Lord was real He would come into her life,” Duke says. “Over the next several months, I watched her change, basically from sadness to joy.”
Two years later, Duke agreed to attend a weekend Bible study near their home in New Braunfels. The instructor taught about the Old Testament prophecies that point to the Messiah, and Duke says he grappled with the question “Who is Jesus Christ?”
By the end of the weekend, on the way home, he realized he believed Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of sinners.
Duke found he had an insatiable desire to read the Bible, and he learned about repentance and faith. His marriage improved. His parenting improved. His sons embraced the gospel. He and Dotty have spoken publicly about their faith in Christ many times. Duke says he’s still faced plenty of difficulties: “But not one promise of God has failed.”
His Christian faith has also changed the way he thinks about what he saw in space nearly a half-century ago. In a scientific field devoted to the theory of evolution, Duke now believes what the Apollo 8 astronauts read from space: God created the heavens and the Earth.
“The evidence to me is overwhelming that there’s a Creator,” he says. “The orderliness in the universe and the physical laws that we experience—I see God’s hand in creation. That can’t happen by accident.” And he notes he’s seen with his own eyes what the Bible says in the book of Job: “He stretches out the north over the void and hangs the earth on nothing.”
ONE OF DUKE’S PRIZED SOUVENIRS from his space journey is a cassette tape he took on his flight to the moon.
NASA allowed each astronaut to bring a tape of songs on board. Duke had asked a friend and disc jockey to put together a tape of country music. During the flight, Duke was shocked when he heard country music legend Porter Wagoner address the three astronauts by name and perform a series of songs with his band and another young singer named Dolly Parton.
Years later, Duke listened to the tape again, and he heard it in a new way. At one point, Dolly Parton told the crew, “I’m sure during this historic Apollo flight you’ll see many, many beautiful scenes … which I’m sure as you view them you’ll think of God, the Creator of this great universe.”
Then Parton sang what she said might be the most beautiful song to describe such a sight: “How Great Thou Art.”
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