By Tyler Davis
They said they’d let him bring any food he wanted into space, and true to his Southern roots, Charlie Duke chose grits.
Now 83, Duke, the youngest person to walk on the moon, spoke at Western Carolina University last Wednesday. A retired Air Force officer and Apollo 16 astronaut, Duke spoke to a packed house in the auditorium at the Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center.
He told the audience about growing up in Langston, South Carolina.
“It was not a dream of mine to go to the moon when I was a kid,” Duke said. “If I’d have told my mama I was going to walk on the moon, mama would have sent me to a psychiatric hospital. But I wanted to serve my country.”
Duke enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy, where he “fell in love with airplanes,” he said.
A Navy doctor found Duke had an astigmatism, blurring his vision and disqualifying him from naval aviation.
“So I joined the Air Force, which was the best decision I made in my life,” he said.
Duke worked on five of nine Apollo programs that went to the moon. He was on mission control for Apollo 10 and 11, part of the backup crew on Apollo 13 and 17 and he flew to the moon on Apollo 16.
Prior to launch, astronauts could make special requests for food on the expedition. Duke asked for grits, making Apollo 16 “the first spacecraft to take grits into space,” he said to a round of laughter from the audience.
Duke commentated on footage of Apollo 16’s launch. “It was like being in a train wreck,” Duke said.
As for the view, Duke said “it was this jewel of the beauty of Earth, just suspended in the blackness of space. As we maneuvered and the Earth came into view, it was breathtaking. It’s impossible to get the same feelings and emotions from a photograph.”
Apollo 16 launched on April 16, 1972, landing in the moon’s Descartes region. The crew spent 71 hours collecting samples, running experiments and exploring the surface. They returned on April 27, one day early, due to system malfunctions.
Duke had a brush with death while hopping around the moon’s surface. He tried to set a high jump record and fell.
“Let me tell you, if I had landed wrong on that backpack, I’d be dead,” he said. The backpack the astronauts wore was filled with life support equipment.
Duke said he is enthusiastic for the future of space travel, with the private sector researching space tourism.
To the young people in the audience, Duke said “Keep your antennas up. Pick something in your studies that you like. That way, even if you never go to space, you’d have a job you really enjoy, something you really like. Stay focused and I think you’ll have a great career.”
For future astronauts, Duke recommends an airlock.
“That’s so you can take off your suit and put on your suit in an airlock without tracking all that dust inside,” Duke said. “Because that’s a big pain.”