Charlie Duke Jr. — youngest man on the Moon
Twelve men have walked on the Moon. Four are still living. I met one of them.
Charlie Duke Jr. is the 10th and youngest man to accomplish this feat. Recently he shared his story at a prayer luncheon in Niagara Falls and I was eager to attend. This is what I learned …
Life on Earth
Duke was born in 1935 in North Carolina. He joined the U.S. Air Force in 1957 and served as a fighter interceptor pilot in Germany for three years. In 1961, President Kennedy told the world that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and bring him back safely. Duke commented that astronauts were happy to hear the last part because no one wanted a one-way ticket.
The young pilot was chosen as a NASA astronaut in 1966. He loved his demanding but thrilling job. His wife, feeling neglected, was less enthusiastic. She was the homemaker raising their two children, Charles and Thomas.
After supporting earlier Apollo missions from the ground, Duke along with John Young and Ken Mattingly, were chosen for the Apollo 16 moon mission in 1972. He would be the lunar module pilot. His many years of training would now be tested.
Life on the Moon
At lift-off, Duke noticed how violently their spacecraft shook as it sat perched on top of a 48,000 kilo Saturn 5 rocket. His heartbeat shot up to 144 beats/minute. Fellow astronaut, John Young, who had flown a previous mission, recorded a cool 70 beats. Duke will never forget looking back at the little blue and green ball called Earth. He described it as “breathtakingly beautiful”. Later in life, these Scriptures became very meaningful to him — “God sits enthroned above the circle of the Earth” (Isaiah 40:22) and “God hangs the Earth on nothing” (Job 26:7).
It took three days to reach the moon travelling at 35,000 km/ hour. After orbiting the lunar surface, the crew prepared for landing.
They were very excited to walk on the moon’s surface, which was like a desert of fine, gray sand. Duke joked, “You couldn’t get lost because all you had to do was follow your footprints back to the lunar module.” They used a lunar rover to explore the area bringing back rock samples. He was the navigator and Young was the driver. It only weighed 25 kilos, so together they could pick it up if they wanted to.
Only once was Duke afraid during his short time on the lunar surface. Knowing the Olympics were taking place on Earth, he thought it would be fun to try a big unscripted jump with only 1/6th of the earth’s gravity. The only problem was that his backpack was as heavy as he was and caused him to fall backward. He quickly realized that if that vital equipment had been damaged … he was dead. With great relief he discovered that everything still worked. Houston was not impressed and ordered them back into the spacecraft.
The moon mission lasted 11 days splashing down in the Pacific on April 27. Another chapter in space history had been written.
Life after the Moon
Duke returned a national hero. He was 36 years old. What would he do now? At first, life was full of travel and speaking engagements. He continued in the space program before retiring as a brigadier general in 1975.
He seemed to have it all — fame, family and financial security — but he felt something was missing. He lacked real peace and purpose in his life. Maybe more money was the answer. So he put his energy into a new business enterprise.
Meanwhile, his marriage was on the verge of divorce. And his wife, Dorothy, was on the verge of suicide. They had both attended church for years. Looking back he realizes that he was a “churchian” but not a true Christian. He confessed that this verse described him well — “These people draw near to Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.” (Isaiah 29:13) That changed for Dorothy In 1975.
Feeling desperate and having tried everything else, she decided to try Jesus. They attended a “Faith Alive” renewal weekend during which several believers shared their testimonies. They seemed to have a love and joy that the Dukes lacked and credited it to a personal relationship with God through Jesus. Dorothy prayed to accept Jesus into her life as her personal Savior. Her life began to change. She was able to forgive her husband for years of neglect and lack of love. She no longer thought of divorce or suicide. She had found Someone who could meet her deepest needs that no husband could.
For Charlie, this spiritual discovery came three years later in 1978. They had joined a Bible study, which met at a tennis club. He read verses like John 3:16 and John 14:6 and thought to himself, “This is either the truth or a lie.” He chose to believe, repented of his sins, and surrendered his life to the Lord. His life, too, began to change. Gradually, his explosive temper and love of money began to fade. His relationship with his wife improved and their marriage was restored. He also realized he needed to bless his children with words of affirmation instead of criticism. He experienced a new love for everyone.
Charlie Duke is now 83. As he closed his talk he said this, “I won’t be around for many more years, but I want you all to know this. We all can’t walk on the moon but we can all walk with Jesus and that’s far more important. It’s a free gift that my wife and I have accepted. We hope and pray that you will too.”
Rob Weatherby was ‘over the moon’ to meet Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke Jr. (left) recently at the annual Prayer Luncheon in Niagara Falls.