A half-century ago, as the world watched in awe as Neil Armstrong took that "one small step" into history on the surface of the moon, a voice from Houston was his constant connection to humanity back on Earth. Earlier, however, as the landing craft neared its destination, that voice had called "60 seconds," to warn the Apollo 11 astronauts - Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins - that they had only one minute's worth of fuel to land, or they would have to abort the mission. That voice belonged to future moonwalker Charles Duke of Lancaster, South Carolina. "It was a very tense 12 or 13 minutes as we started the descent," he recalled on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the historic landing. "We started having a lot of problems. Communication problems, data dropout. Then we had computer overloads, so you can imagine the tension rising in Mission Control."
To compound matters, the crew saw at the last minute that it was about to land in a patch of rocks and craters. So the craft had to level off and relocate to a better spot, burning valuable fuel. "And I called '60 seconds....'" said Duke. "Then I called '30 seconds.' He still hadn't landed. But 13 seconds later, I heard Buzz Aldrin say 'Contact. Engine stop.' And it was like air going out of a big balloon as tension was released." A few seconds later, a calm voice from the landing craft said "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."
One of the greatest feats in history had been accomplished, and Duke was part of it. But his role at NASA was hardly finished. In fact, it had hardly begun. "There were nine missions to the moon, and I was priveleged to work on five of those," remembered the Lancaster native. Two of them were in Mission Control - Apollo 10 and 11 - and he served as a backup astronaut on Apollo 13 and 17 in case he was needed to replace one of the crew. But in April 1972 he himself became the 10th man in history (out of only 12) to touch the surface of the moon as part of the Apollo 16 moon mission.
Though he and fellow moonwalker John Young conducted important research, Duke said they also enjoyed themselves immensely. "It was exciting," he understated. "We didn't want to come back we were having so much fun."
The golden anniversary of Duke's moonwalk will occur in 2022. But he said that that historic first in 1969 will always be a special moment in his life.
The first manned moon landing was 50 years ago on July 20, 1969. This month join American Experience and PBS for the broadcast of Chasing the Moon and relive the journey that defined a generation. Chasing the Moon airs on South Carolina ETV in three parts, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, July 8-10 at 9 p.m. In the days leading up to the broadcast, South Carolina Public Radio will present stories related to America’s space program.