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POSTCARD FROM THE MOON

A CHAT WITH ONE OF THE TWELVE MEN WHO HAS WALKED ON THE MOON PROVIDES A GLIMPSE INTO THE MIND OF A MODERN-DAY EXPLORER

SEPTEMBER 11, 2015  

'That's one small step for a man,

one giant leap for mankind.'

- Neil Armstrong -

Imagine being on a ship somewhere in the northern reaches of Canada's Arctic region, and on that ship are several resource people who are the very best in their chosen field; artists, writers, photographers, scientists, and explorers.  On September 11, 2015, I have the pleasure of having a chat to Apollo astronaut, Charlie Duke, one of the world's living treasures, on the remote and desolate Beechey Island in Canada. 

Tour: Out of the Northwest Passage with Adventure Canada from September 4-21, 2015

September 11, 2015 visit to Beechey Island

Photos: Janette Frawley, except for maps (Adventure Canada itinerary, Google maps) and image of Charlie Duke on the moon (Internet - public domain)

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The door of the Nautilus Lounge, a large meeting room at the rear of the Ocean Endeavour, opens slightly as a steward slips in, closing the door behind him. The air outside is frigid as the evening's inky blackness is devoid of ambient light. The ship moves in an upward then downward motion in sync with the waves in the Northern reaches of the Canadian Northwest Passage. Every now and then there is a bang or a crash followed by a reverberating shudder as the ship collides with errant sea-ice. The steward hurries over to close the heavy window coverings, reducing possible reflections and providing a warm, cosy atmosphere, before pulling down a portable screen from its fixing on the ceiling. The projector, which is also bolted to the ceiling, is switched on, as a laptop computer is placed on a sturdy tripod and checked before the door is opened to allow people in.

 

One by one, chattering passengers enter the room; the steward jokes with them as he ushers them to their seats. All 96 passengers and most of the resource staff decide to attend this lecture, so they squeeze into any spare corner they can find. Some latecomers have to sit on the floor. The chattering lulls to a buzz then dies down to near silence as the guest of honour walks to the darkened screen and introduces himself.

It is September 11, 2015 and Charlie Duke is dressed in royal-blue coveralls, standard issue that had been provided to him by NASA in 1972, when he flew to the moon on the Apollo 16 mission. Clearly, he has not gained any weight over the past forty-three years, as the suit fits him as perfectly today as it did for the official pre-launch photographs. At 79 years of age, he stands erect and tall, apparently not suffering from the physical ailments that elderly people often display. His fairly unlined face shows none of the signs of the stresses of his decorated career as a US test pilot and astronaut. 

When I was ten years old, I watched as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made those first steps on the moon. In 1969, few schools had access to television sets, and I believe it was due to the resourcefulness of our school's head nun, Sister Anthony Joseph, who had somehow conned the owner of the local electrical store, to lend the school a television to use so that we could watch the moon landing. Mr Tritton didn’t know what he was in for, as once set up, the picture on the black-and-white set was fuzzy and we were unable to discern anything. Additionally, the buzzing sound that accompanied the fuzz drowned out all narration of the events as they were happening. This might have been a disaster, except that when Mr. Tritton stood next to the television to make an adjustment, the fuzzing and buzzing disappeared and we got a perfect picture and sound. When he walked away, the fuzz and buzz returned. To his credit, and almost fifty years later, I still remember the incident as if it were yesterday. Mr. Tritton stoically stood next to that television set as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon at 12:56pm on July 21, 1969 Australian time, and uttered his famous line,

'That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’

 

From that moment on, I have been fascinated by space travel and now, I am in a room with Charlie Duke, the youngest man to walk on the moon and the man whose voice I had heard on that day in 1969. I didn’t know it then, but Charlie was Capcom, the spacecraft communicator, for the landing of Apollo 11.

 

Softly-spoken, yet compelling as he recounts his experiences on the moon, his slight Texan drawl puts new pronunciation on some words, like mo-on. I was immediately drawn into the world of space travel, and exploration of a grey, lifeless, airless, hostile environment; a world I will never experience myself. Facts and figures roll off Charlie’s tongue as he quotes distances, time travelled, weights, measures, and even his pitiful 'living away from home allowance'. These are the words of the lecturer, the member of the exclusive Explorer’s Club, the bloke who is employed to talk to a group of eager listeners, the astronaut. Yet there is a human, more personal side to Charlie, which he demonstrates during his compelling talk.

 

‘I was selected for the Apollo 13 mission,’ he says. This was the mission, made famous by the movie of the same name, starring Tom Hanks. When Charlie’s son was exposed to the Rubella virus prior to the quarantine for the mission, he and Ken Mattingly were removed from the mission immediately, as neither of them had immunity to that disease. This was a total disaster for Charlie and as a small tear leaks from his left eye and runs unchecked down his cheek, he is reliving those moments of despair and disappointment he had felt.

             

‘I didn’t think I would ever realise my dream of walking on the mo-on,’ he said ‘Because when that disaster struck, the whole Apollo space programme was placed on hold for a while.’  

He recounts the joy he felt when he was selected for the Apollo 16 mission. The years between the Apollo 13 and 16 missions had not been spent in vain, as Charlie had to become an expert in geology, because his mission was to collect volcanic rock and soil samples from the Descartes Highlands.

Nearing the end of his lecture and during question time, Charlie is asked about the conspiracy theories surrounding the moon landings. A flash of anger or perhaps frustration crosses his face briefly as he sharply retorts with a question of his own.

             

‘Why should we lie about landing on the moon?’ he says. ‘And why would we lie about it six times?’ It is clear that the thought of twelve honourable men lying about their work and their achievements in space is not one that Charlie finds agreeable.

 

A day later, Charlie and his wife, Dorothy, share the same zodiac in which I am riding to visit Beechey Island, a windswept speck in the middle of nowhere. This is the last resting place of three men from the doomed Franklin expedition of the Northwest Passage in 1845. Because they died prior to the disappearance of the Erebus and the Terror, these three are the only crew members that had been buried. I trudge over the rock-hard surface where centuries of erosion by wind, water, and ice has ground the shoreline of the rocky islet down to smooth pebbles, cleverly cemented together with coarse sand. The desolation is almost overwhelming. I pause to chat with Charlie, who is also viewing the gravesite.

 

‘We-ell,’ he says with his drawn-out Texan drawl, ‘This place would have to be as close to the moon as you could get here on earth.’ He continues, pointing to the graves at our feet, ‘This is a hostile environment, and at first sight, almost totally devoid of life. When these men arrived here, they had a very short window of time to get the hell out. Their survival depended upon it. They miscalculated, got iced in, and paid with their lives.’

Despite the optimism of his lecture last night, I get the feeling that Charlie’s comments may come from experience. When the Apollo 16 lunar module landed on the moon, the astronauts had already experienced a communication problem, which had resulted in a delay that affected the length of time they could spend on the moon. They had also landed some 200 metres from their planned touch-down location, resulting in having used extra fuel. In all, they had been on the moon for a total of 72 hours, with just over 20 hours of time collecting samples from the designated lunar surface. They had known when they landed on the surface of the moon that there was no room for error if they were to rendezvous with the orbiting command/service module, and that they would only get one opportunity to make the connection. Despite the extra 96 kilograms in rock and soil samples they collected, they did have enough fuel to jettison themselves off the surface, and to successfully rendezvous, with the orbiting module.

Today, it seems almost impossible to believe that, despite the leaps and bounds in which space travel has progressed, nobody has attempted a return trip to the moon. Perhaps the world's scientists have enough information about the moon as they look towards the ways in which they can explore the surface of Mars and perhaps beyond.

During the course of the voyage out of the Northwest Passage, I have many opportunities to chat to both Charlie and his wife, Dorothy, but the discussion we have about his lunar-walk experience whilst standing on the surface of the desolate Beechey Island, is something that I'll never forget. 

Explorers, it appears, are special types of people. They have an ultimate goal, which must be achieved at all cost. Unlike Franklin's ill-fated voyage to find a route through The Northwest Passage, the explorers of Apollo 16, Charlie Duke, Ken Mattingly, and John Young, not only were able to explore an area of the moon no other person had visited, but successfully completed their mission and returned to earth safely. Like Franklin and other explorers before them, their dedication to accept impossible challenges to explore places beyond the realm of the imaginations of ordinary people, they have been instrumental in changing our perception of our place on earth and in our solar system. 

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