I've attended many talks during my 15 years as a science and tech writer and sometimes, when I look back on my reams of shorthand notes, I struggle to find an interesting angle.
Last week, I attended a symposium with Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke. And I'm struggling again with my notes. But only because there are so many wonderful snippets of information that I'm struggling to know where to start.
So, I'll start at the beginning and do my best to summarise what was the best talk I have ever had the privilege of attending, using a few of Charlie Duke's own words.
"If we faked it, why did we fake it nine times?"
Charlie is a respectful man who commands great respect with his humble, yet engaging, manner. He struck down the well-pattered conspiracy theories around the moon landings with the same amount of considered respect throughout his talk.
Another wonderful nugget of information also came to light, as Charlie explained why the US flag appears to 'flutter' on the lunar surface: "It was vacuum packed for six months and I could not get the wrinkles out."
So, there you go. The flag is not blowing in the breeze of whatever desert people claim the lunar landings were filmed. It was just wrinkled. (And, if you take a look at the Apollo 16 shots, the same pattern of wrinkles appear in the flag at all times - it's not moving.)
But this rebuke around the nine lunar landings is my favourite. Charlie was involved with five out of nine of the Apollo moon programs. He's formed part of the astronaut support crew and worked as CAPCOM (the Capsule Communicator who communicates directly with the crew of a manned space flight).
He was CAPCOM during the Apollo 11 landing. It was a particularly tense and long landing that almost expended all of the Lunar Module Eagle's fuel. Duke's first words to the Apollo 11 crew on the surface of the Moon (when a safe landing was confirmed) were flustered: "Roger, Twank... Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot!"
Just to give you an indication of Charlie's character, he also repeated that famous phrase when asked in front of the entire auditorium in his distinctive Southern drawl that made him familiar to audiences around the world in the 1960s and 1970s. Fantastic.
"The whole purpose was to pick up rocks."
The glamour of the space program was also quickly refuted by Charlie. From tales of sharing a 300 cubic foot space with two other astronauts to spending 1,000 hours in a simulator or 500 hours in the hot Florida sun practising the aforementioned rock picking, Charlie is quick to point out: "A space flight is not a guaranteed route to fame and fortune."
The Apollo 16 mission collected nearly 213 pounds of rock and soil samples and, despite extensive geological training, Charlie admitted they chose to "pick up one of every colour" on the lunar surface. He also claims he broke the lunar land speed record using the mission's rover (something other moonwalkers dispute!) and that parking on the moon is pretty easy because "you can just pick up your car and put it in a different spot".
But one of my favourite stats comes around the budget for flying three men to the moon. According to Charlie, the Apollo 16 astronauts received $25/day for the trip, so that's $275 for the 11-day trip. Charlie said: "I could buy, maybe a new golf bag with that. So, I filled out a travel voucher instead."
"Unfortunately, meals and quarters were deducted. I got $13.75 in expenses for the moon landing."
"You don't see the stars. You just see the blackness of space and it's vivid."
This is Charlie's impression of space. The strikingly simple phrase perfectly sums up what (I can only guess) it must be like to peer out of your window and see nothing, yet everything.
It's not just space that's vividly black, so is the dark side of the moon, according to Charlie. Apparently, later Apollo programs were interested in landing on the dark side, but Mission Control refused this request. And, after passing on the dark side, Charlie said: "It was so black, you'd think it was space. But it was the moon that was black. It looked really, really rough and I'm glad we did not land there."
"The emotional feelings are what I remember the most."
The broad and fine details of Charlie's time in space and on the moon are fascinating. From seeing Earthrise to dropping a $10 million science experiment on the lunar surface (it was fine), Charlie and fellow astronaut John Young spent a record-breaking 71 hours and 14 minutes exploring the moon. "Every time we crossed a ridge, we did not know what we would see," he added.
The dusty surface of the moon also has a very familiar (but unexpected) smell, according to Charlie. When dust transferred from their spacesuits and gained moisture in the spacecraft: "We had a strange feeling that it smelt like gunpowder."
Charlie also thought he'd try his hand at the high jump on the team's very own version of the Olympics (his lunar landing happening in 1972 ahead of the Munich games). He lost his balance and landed on his back, which was no laughing matter as such an impact could have fatally compromised his space suit. "That ended the Moon Olympics. Mission control was very upset," he added.
"I believe the human spirit will take us to Mars one day. Buzz Aldrin is ready to go now."
Charlie remains optimistic that we will see a Marswalker in the future and the nature of the human spirit means: "We will figure it out."
But, how are we going to figure it out? There are only six moonwalkers left on Earth and Charlie also made a very pertinent point about the space program. While some are swift to argue the money would be better spent here on Earth fixing our (somewhat mounting) problems, the ROI of the Apollo mission is ten-fold, with some studies estimating a $7 to $14 return for every $1 of NASA expenditure.
So, I hope that we will start to see a new wave of moonwalkers. Not just because of the wider benefits such programs bring to society thanks to the employment and innovation they create, but because of the spirit of discovery they nurture in the human race.
If there was ever a time to look up to the stars instead of inwards, it's now.
Because we also need more Charlie Dukes. We need more advocates for science, exploration and innovation for the human race to thrive and survive.
Charlie repeatedly called his time on the space program "a privilege". Well, it was a true privilege to hear him talk.
Thanks to the Armchair Astronaut for organising such a great event! I may have missed a few key points as I was too enthused to make really detailed notes. So, if you were at the talk and want to share your experiences - please do so in the comments below.
Hello. I'm the freelance writer who gets tech. So, I blog on three core topics:
Science and Technology
And I explain science with Lego in Sunday Science.
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