America’s race to the Moon was all-consuming in the go-go years of the 1960s. President John F. Kennedy had set the course to reach the Moon “by the end of this decade,” and in the wake of his assassination in 1963, the promise would not be broken. Kennedy’s invocation was that this American imperative was a choice, and one that would not be made lightly.
“We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skill,” Kennedy said. But no sooner had astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins returned from their Apollo 11 Moon landing than the magic seemed to escape from the enterprise. Within just three years, the entire program would cease. The ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, despite its miraculous recovery, injected a new sense of risk in space travel and, in April 1972, NASA’s Apollo 16 marked what would be America’s next-to-last trip to the lunar surface.
Duke left a 25th USAF Silver Anniversary coin and a family photo on the lunar surface, then photographed them in the dust.
The Air Force was celebrating its 25th birthday that spring, a still-new service that captured America’s sense of daring, technological prowess, and future-forward thinking. How strange to think now, 50 years later, that despite massive technological change and breakthroughs in the ensuing years, that mystical concept of walking on the lunar surface is now, at once, something for the history books and in another sense still a dream for many to return there once again.
Air Force Lt. Col. Charlie Duke was the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 16 and one of the last few Americans to shake lunar dust from his feet. Now, at 86, it is half a century since he left mementos of that journey, including an Air Force anniversary coin and a family photo, on the Moon. He also left a scrap of fabric celebrating his time at test pilot school. Nearly half the men who made the journey from Earth to the Moon had Air Force roots, whether Airmen from the start like Gus Grissom and Ed White—Air Force officers turned NASA astronauts—who died in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire, or those like Duke and his crew mate, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Ken Mattingly, who started in the Navy but got to space by way of the Air Force.
Duke was born in Charlotte, N.C., and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1957 before joining the Air Force and serving three years as a fighter pilot with the 526th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Ramstein Air Base in West Germany. He later qualified for USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., attending in August 1964. Mattingly, a naval officer, managed to secure a seat in the same program, a year behind Duke, who was one of his instructors.
Duke’s class at ARPS was 64-C; the commandant at the time was the legendary Chuck Yeager. That class produced three Apollo astronauts from among its dozen students.
Duke was admitted to Project Apollo in 1966 as part of NASA’s fifth intake of astronauts, along with ARPS classmates Stuart Roosa and Al Worden. He was later assigned to Apollo 16 as Lunar Module Pilot, and in April 1972, at the age of 36, Duke became the 10th and youngest man to walk on the Moon.
Apollo astronauts, understandably, were not known for their outward displays of emotion. Trained to subdue emotion and maintain focus, they were cool, calculating engineers, and steely eyed fearless fighter and test pilots, accustomed to putting their lives on the line. Rarely did any display the raw human emotions of their experiences to others; Charlie Duke was an exception.
Each astronaut carried personal preference kit, in which they could bring small personal items for the nearly 500,000-mile journey. Duke’s handwritten declaration of the contents of his kit included: “1 family picture” and “2 medallions for [the] Air Force.”
Following their third and final “Extravehicular Activity,” when Duke and mission Commander John Young were safely back in the vicinity of the lunar module, Duke deposited the family portrait on the lunar surface and photographed it in the dust. It shows Duke, his wife, Dotty, and children Charles (then seven) and Tom (then five) in the backyard of their home. On the back he had written “This is the family of Astronaut Duke from Planet Earth. Landed on the Moon, April 1972.”
In researching my book, “Apollo Remastered,” Duke confirmed this as an emotional moment. He wanted to excite his kids about what their dad was doing and saw it as a way to connect them to the mission and all the time he was spending away from them while training in Florida.
Nearby, Duke dropped a piece of beta cloth, the material used in the manufacture of the Apollo space suits, on which he’d written, “64-C,” his class at the test pilot school. He referenced it as he radioed to Mission Control, in a message understandable only to his classmates from ARPS:
Duke: “Hey, Tony”
Capsule Communicator Tony England: “Yeah, Charlie?”
Duke: “Is Stu (Roosa) around?”
England: “Yeah, he’s right here.”
Duke: “Tell him ‘Sixty Four Charlie’ just topped the Mount Whitney event!”
Duke later explained the exchange in the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal: “‘Sixty-four Charlie’ was our test pilot school class. [Roosa] and I went to test pilot school together. The class climbed up to the top of Mount Whitney (in California) and everybody had a ball. And that’s what I was referring to: [The Descartes landing site] was better than the Mount Whitney event.”
After dropping the cloth, Duke took a few more steps forward and dropped the Air Force 25th Anniversary Medallion to commemorate his service’s birthday.
The photograph of a coin has been seen previously in lower-resolution scans of duplicate film, but the images were too blurry to be clearly recognizable. Thanks to recent high-resolution scans of the original flight film, along with modern-day digital enhancement, it is now possible to more clearly see details on the face of the coin and confirm that it is, in fact, identical to another Air Force medallion Duke carried with him.
Around its circumference, the medallion reads: “DEPARTMENT OF THE AIR FORCE.” The Air Force crest is in the center, and the year 1947 is spelled out in Roman numerals underneath: “MCMXLVII.”
The second medallion made the round trip and Duke later presented it for display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio. It remains on display there to this day.
By superimposing a photograph of this medallion over the enhanced image of the medallion on the Moon, we can confirm with certainty that the coins are a perfect match. Gradually changing the opacity also allows us to highlight additional details on the face of the Air Force medallion that still resides 240,000 miles away on the Descartes Highlands.
Half a century on, how would these momentos have fared in the harsh lunar environment? The 64-C inscription on the beta cloth will likely have faded due to extreme UV radiation from unfiltered sunlight. Similarly, in the extreme temperatures, the shrink-wrapped Duke family photograph will have quickly curled up and its contents bleached. The Duke’s are therefore delighted that I’m sending a very small copy of that same photograph back to the Moon at the end of this year, on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander. And because it will remain encapsulated, the photograph should last significantly longer than the original.
With no atmospheric pollutants, no wind, and no water to erode or corrode the medallion, that particular tribute to the Air Force should remain, like many of the astronaut’s footprints, for millions of years to come.
Duke’s mementos and photographs remind us that we humans made this incredible journey, slipping the bonds of gravity and traversing the emptiness of space to set foot on a heavenly body so very far from Earth. Duke understood that he was leaving his mark, just as other explorers left their marks on the far-away places they visited on Earth. He was driven to commemorate the things that were important to him, the things that shaped him and prepared him to complete his momentous journey from North Carolina to Edwards Air Force Base to the Descartes Highlands on the surface of the Moon. As his time there dwindled down to the end, on April 23, 1972, Duke transmitted this message to Earth:
“Tony, a special salute from me to the United States Air Force on their silver anniversary this year: From one of the boys in blue that’s pretty far out right now. …”
Andy Saunders is an imaging specialist and lifelong space aficionado. He is the author of the upcoming book Apollo Remastered, now available for pre-order from BlackDogAndLeventhal.com. Learn more at ApolloRemastered.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@AndySaunders_1) and Instagram (@andysaunders_1).