Man on the moon
By Scott Harrup
On April 16, 1972, Air Force Lt. Col. Charles M. Duke Jr.,
36, began the longest flight of his career — more than half a million
miles. With Navy Lt. Comm. Ken Mattingly strapped on the flight couch to his
left, and Navy Capt. John Young at the far left, Duke waited for the countdown
at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A.
When Apollo 16’s Saturn V rocket lifted off at 12:54 p.m.,
an estimated 1 million people were on hand to watch — from a safe
distance. At the launch site, a controlled explosion of 4,500 gallons of fuel
per second created 7.5 million pounds of thrust to lift the 360-foot spacecraft
One minute… two minutes … less than three minutes into
flight, 4.5 million pounds of fuel had burned, carrying the astronauts 35 miles
above Earth as the first massive stage of the rocket fell away. Duke, Mattingly
and Young were already traveling at 5,000 miles per hour.
By April 19, the three men were orbiting the moon. Duke joined
Mission Commander Young in Orion, the Lunar Module, for descent to the surface.
As the mission modules separated, Mattingly continued to orbit in Casper, the
Command and Service Module. Young and Duke landed on the moon at 9:23 p.m. EST
on April 20. They would explore the mountains and craters of the Descartes
highlands, just a little southeast of the moon’s visual center from Earth (see
sidebar: “Family night out”).
Duke became the 10th man to walk on the moon, following
closely after Young made the initial descent from Orion. Three days later, they
lifted off the lunar surface. Their three excursions had totaled 20 hours and
15 minutes of exploration, a record, including several trips on the electric
Lunar Rover. They had collected more than 200 pounds of rock and soil samples,
conducted an array of experiments and shot copious amounts of video and
Left behind were several instrument packages, the Lunar
Rover, discarded equipment to lighten Orion … and a family portrait of Charlie
and Dotty Duke with their sons Charles, 7, and Tom, 5. Duke had placed the
plastic-sleeved picture on the lunar surface and photographed it before
returning to Orion for the last time.
But the happy faces immortalized in that picture were a
Charlie and Dotty Duke were on the verge of divorce. Young
Charles and Tom had seen precious little of their dad during his years as an
Air Force test pilot and NASA astronaut. Once the spotlight from the moon
mission shifted away, it was an open question whether the family would remain
On Jan. 21, 2008, Dotty, 67, thinks back to those days.
She’s seated at hand-holding distance with Charlie, 72, in their New Braunfels,
Texas, home. She’s smiling, but the smile is tied to the present rather than the
“When I was a young girl,” she says, “I thought I would meet
my Prince Charming and live happily ever after. When Charlie started courting
me, he seemed to love me more than anything. We didn’t know each other but
about three months before he proposed, and we were married about seven months
At their June 1, 1963, wedding, Dotty thought her dream had
come true. She was quickly disillusioned as Charlie plunged into graduate
studies at MIT. His test pilot training at Edwards Air Force Base in
California’s Mojave Desert only monopolized his time even further. By the time
Charlie was immersed in training for the Apollo program, he and Dotty were
living separate lives, even with the arrival of two sons.
Dotty maintained a solid home front for Charlie and the
boys. She hosted countless reporters and guests during the moon mission. In the
months following Apollo 16 she traveled widely with Charlie, always with the
public enthusiasm expected of NASA celebrities.
Charlie was named South Carolina Man of the Year and
inducted into his home state’s Hall of Fame in 1973. He explored various
business opportunities. But by the fall of 1975 Dotty was suicidal.
“I started thinking, Well, maybe we live and we die, and
that’s all there is,” she remembers. “I convinced myself that even my children
would be better off without me.”
Dotty was contemplating how to end her life when their
church organized a renewal weekend. As one of the lay leaders, Dotty was
expected to be involved. She and Charlie invited one of the couples speaking at
the retreat to stay in their home.
“These people talked about how Jesus had changed their
lives, and how Jesus had done this and Jesus had done that,” Dotty says. “It
wasn’t really mind-boggling. It was simple stuff.”
That weekend, alone and kneeling by her bed, Dotty prayed to
the Jesus she had heard about all her life, but had never known.
“I prayed, ‘Jesus, if You’re real, I give You my life. And
if You’re not real, I want to die.’ That was my simple prayer,” she says.
Man of faith
Dotty’s prayer set her on a life-transforming journey. The
changes were small at first. She began to commit daily needs to God. She saw
her prayers answered. As her faith in Christ grew, she tackled the mountain of
pain her marriage had become.
The response she sensed during her prayers surprised her.
Instead of some divine promise to change Charlie, Dotty understood she had a
responsibility to forgive him.
“God was saying, I’ve forgiven you for everything you’ve
done in the past,” Dotty remembers. “I understood that part. And then He said,
I want you to forgive Charlie the same way I’ve forgiven you. That’s when the
process really started, and the change.”
In time, Dotty’s forgiveness and love drew Charlie closer to
her and to God. At an April 1978 conference on Bible prophecy, Charlie declared
his faith in Christ.
Sitting next to Dotty on Martin Luther King Day 2008,
Charlie describes their shared Christian commitment and the life it breathes
into their relationship.
“We want to walk in God’s will,” he says. “So we regularly
pray, ‘Lord, help us to walk in Your will. We don’t want to be in a fog. We
want to do what You want us to do.’ In the 30 years of together walking with
the Lord, we can say that not one promise of God has failed us. God has been there
in every situation — financial problems, health problems, deaths of some
family, problems with kids. All of that. God has been faithful, and I praise
Him for His presence.”
Man of blessing
Charlie’s encounter with Christ also salvaged his
relationship with Charles and Tom, today 43 and 41 with families of their own.
“I was a military drill instructor dad,” Charlie says of the
Apollo years. “I was real tough. My motive was to make them ‘perfect’ like I
was. I loved them very much, but they could never really please me so I was
always on them. I had an explosive temper.”
When Charlie accepted Christ, the boys were 13 and 11. As
Charlie started reading the Bible, he began to discover what parenting was all
“The more I read, the more convicted I became,” he says.
“The verse that really got my attention was Proverbs 18:21 where I read, ‘In
the tongue is the power of life and death.’ And the Lord spoke to my heart and said,
You have cursed your own children. You’re speaking death into them.”
Charlie’s heart was broken as he thought of the pain he had
brought Charles and Tom. He went to his sons and asked them to forgive him.
“The Lord eventually delivered me from this explosive temper
and critical spirit,” Charlie says. “We began to grow together in the Lord, and
I began to bless them and encourage them. They started blossoming like spring
flowers. It was amazing to see the change in our relationship.”
“We’ve gotten very close,” Charlie says. “We’re affectionate
one to another. We give hugs, you know, a manly kiss on the cheek, stuff like
that. And I’m doing the same thing with my grandchildren to bless them.
“In the Book of Joel it talks about God restoring what the
locusts have eaten. Over the years God has restored what was damaged in the earlier
years of their lives. Now we have a beautiful relationship.”
The Man and the moon
As one of the featured Apollo astronauts sharing memories in
the 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, Charlie Duke took the
opportunity to proclaim his faith to millions.
“My walk on the moon lasted three days, and it was a great
adventure,” he said unapologetically. “But my walk with God lasts forever.”
On the moon, each lunar day lasts for 14 Earth days. The sun
steadily crosses the black sky and transforms frigid shadow into baking rock.
The Duke family photo almost certainly has faded and crumbled under the barrage
of monthly radiation.
But on Earth, the Duke family lives and thrives thanks to
their encounter with a Man … and God … who just happened to put that moon there
in the first place.
TPExtra: For more remarks from Scott Harrup’s interview with
astronaut Charlie Duke, visit “Out There” (sharrup.agblogger.org).
SCOTT HARRUP is senior associate editor of Today’s
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