Apollo 16 astronaut, Charlie Duke, tells Donald MacInnes what it’s like to be one of only a dozen men to have walked on the Moon…

During the heyday of the space programme, the Houston-based Capsule Communicator (or “Capcom”) was the distant crew’s only link back to Earth. Any information they wanted to pass back to the Flight Director; any information that needed to be passed by him to them – good, bad, mundane or catastrophic – travelled via the conduit of just one person; just one voice. And to make sure that voice was welcomed and given credence, it always belonged to a fellow astronaut. The only time the voice changed was when that astronaut finished his shift. Then he would be replaced by another chap with the right stuff; stuff enough to be the sole Earthly link for three men sitting in a tin can, locked into a trajectory of astonishing speed; splitting the darkness at 20,000mph.

Listen to a recording of the final moments of Apollo 11’s touchdown on the Moon. As the fragile lunar module – emptying rapidly and dangerously of fuel – drifts down to the surface, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s somewhat tense recitations are the only soundtrack to the Earth-stopping drama. Numbers are called out, few of them meaning anything to the lay listener; the exchanges bringing to mind two men playing Battleships by ham radio.

When the module, designated “Eagle”, finally settles safely onto the Moon’s surface, Neil Armstrong blurts his more-than-a-little relieved declaration: “Tranquillity Base here… the Eagle has landed.”

A third voice rises, that of their Capcom: “Roger, Twank… Tranquillity. We copy you on the ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

That slightly stuttering, gentle voice, with its home-cooked, North Carolina cadence, belonged to Charlie Duke. Thankfully, three years later, Duke had regained his breath sufficiently to be named in the Apollo 16 crew for a mission to the lunar highlands. He and his colleague John Young would be the first men to walk on the mountains of the Moon.

Donald MacInnes: It’s hard to grasp that your footprints are still up there…

Charlie Duke: “It is amazing. They’re still there. In the LRO pictures you can see our descent stage [lunar lander], rover [moon buggy] and our experiments package. Everything’s still there! It’s amazing.”

DM: As far as your journey to the Moon goes, I recall Mike Collins [Apollo 11] saying he never lost the feeling that, just outside the flimsy walls of the craft, instant death was waiting. Were you aware of any unease or nervousness?

CD: “No, not really. The only time I had what you would call life threatening fear was when I was on the Moon. Towards the end of our stay, we got excited and we were going to do the high jump and I jumped and fell over backwards. That was a scary time, because if the backpack got broken, I would have had it. But everything held together. [As regards being scared] going to the Moon… I just recall… looking out of the window as the Earth receded into the emptiness of space, it was more of an adventure than a feeling of fear of what was on the other side of the glass.”

DM: I imagine the interior of the spacecraft as having quite a sterile smell, like the dentists. Does it?

CD: “Well, you have three people and their natural body odours, so… [not for long].
I mean, we try to keep clean… wipe down with a towel… but you get used to the smell after a day or so. After we splashed down [returned to Earth] and we got out, they got the space craft onto the [recovery ship USS Ticonderoga], by that time we had showered and cleaned up and we went back [to the craft] to collect our stuff and phew, it [smelled] awful inside! I said: “How did we stand this?” But we had gotten used to it.”

DM: The closest most of us will ever get to the feeling of being in space is when we are on a commercial airliner. Is there any similarity? I’m thinking of that feeling of pressurisation when your ears pop.

CD: “No. Uh-uh. When you go up off the launch pad, the pressure in the space craft decreases, so there is no sense of that airplane thing of your ears popping. I don’t recall even sensing [discomfort]. You’re in your suit; buttoned up, with your communications hat and helmet on and you can feel the oxygen flow. I’m watching the pressure gauge in the cabin go down. It went down to 5.5 [psi - pounds per square inch] and held there, so we [knew] we had a solid cabin and didn’t notice any ear problems.”

Some three days after launching from the Kennedy Space Center, the three astronauts reached the Moon, established orbit and prepared for the next step of the mission. This would involve the two men who would be actually going down to the surface entering the Lunar Module (LM). It would then separate from the Command/Service Module (CSM), which would remain in orbit and wait for their return. Duke and Young clambered into the LM, the crew compartment of which was about the size of a telephone box. It then separated from the CSM and moved off to a short distance away. However, just at that moment, as Command Module pilot Ken Mattingly was testing the craft’s rocket engine in advance of firing it to reach another orbit, a malfunction occurred in the engine’s back-up system.

CD: “That was a very difficult time. We had trained for two years, had travelled 250,000, were orbiting the Moon, you could see your landing site eight miles beneath you and all of a sudden you have this problem. According to the mission rules, it was an abort situation. [Houston] told us to get back together – not dock, but just get in close proximity to the CSM and prepare to come home. That was a really sad situation and if your heart could sink to the bottom of your boots in zero gravity, ours did. So that was three hours [of that]. But we knew that Mission Control was looking at it and working on it, so there was the possibility that they would get it fixed and sure enough, while they didn’t fix it, they figured out how to work around it. So we were elated when they gave us the Go for landing. Of course [the problem] meant we used a lot of extra power and were six hours [behind schedule], so we had to change the flightplan. Once we landed, we were supposed to get out first and then take a rest period, but they had us do a rest period first.”

To the lay observer, it would seem to be the ultimate in frustration: having landed on the Moon to then be ordered to go to sleep. It would be like driving a car full of kids to Disney World and then making them wait in the car for six hours before they can get out.

CD: “Yeah, that’s about right [LAUGHS]. Once we got landed, we powered down and they convinced us we ought to have a rest period. So, three or four hours after you land on the Moon, you’re trying to get to sleep… it was almost impossible. I ended up taking a sleeping pill. We had them in our medical kit and I said: ‘Is it okay if I do this?’ and they said: ‘Sure, if you want to.’ We had checked out all the medication before flight and I knew it would be enough to just get me to sleep and wouldn’t cause any grogginess, if we had a problem, which we did a few hours later, [so] I was able to respond to the emergency. During that first rest period, we had a reaction control system problem and the system was going to over-pressurise. When it got to a certain pressure, it turned on the master alarm. So we’re in the middle of this rest period and Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong! this alarm went off… I got the helmet on… It got your attention! [But] all we had to do was cycle the valve and relieve the pressure and it was back within limits.”

With such a cocoon of safety around the astronauts, it would seem likely that they felt some level of disconnection from their new environment. At least in an alien environment with which more of us are familiar – the sea – if you go scuba diving, you may have your breathing apparatus on your back, but at least you can feel the water on your face and skin; feel its chill or warmth; hear its sounds. In space, no one can hear… or feel…  anything.

CD: “For me, it was like being in familiar territory. You had studied the photographs of [areas on the surface you had to explore]… and you could see the major landmarks that were some of the objectives. To the south there was the big mountain we called Stone Mountain and to the north there were the Smoky Mountains. It was like you had been there before, because you had studied the maps for so many hours. So you had that connectedness.”

Although it seems there was even more familiarity than having previous knowledge of the topography. Duke’s upbringing in North Carolina, with its Appalachian Mountains, was never too far away.

CD: “Yeah, as a matter of fact, the mountains to the north, we called Smoky Mountains which are in Tennessee; the Blue Ridge and the Smoky mountains up in Tennessee and North Carolina, which is the southern end of the Appalachians. It looked like that colour. And then, of course, Stone Mountain was named for the big monolith in Atlanta, Georgia.”

Given the gentle undulation of the landscape we first saw on the Apollo 11 footage, it’s sometimes hard to grasp much elevation on the Moon. Yes, we can picture huge craters, but towering mountains? Harder to imagine.

CD: “They really looked just like big hills to me. You know, where we landed, was like a high valley. I think it was about 7,000ft-8,000ft above where Neil Armstrong landed, but it didn’t seem like it. You had no concept of that. We went up on Stone Mountain on the second day; that was about 300ft we climbed up. It just seemed like walking up a hill, but once you got up there, you turned around and looked out across the valley and that was probably one of the most spectacular views that we had.”

Duke and Young spend 71 hours – just under three days – on the surface of the Moon. Given that they were the first astronauts to visit the lunar highlands, their mission parameters were quite unique, their objectives during that time to collect as much material from the surface as possible (they ended up taking home 95.7kg of Moon rock), explore the surface in the lunar rover vehicle, carry out scientific experiments and generally expand humanity’s knowledge of the Moon’s make-up.

CD: “It went by really fast. Especially the time outside. My longest [period outside the space craft] was seven hours 40 minutes and that just flew by! But I was on my reserve cooling water and needed to get back [to the spacecraft].”

After their near-three-day visit, Duke and Young took off from the surface, docked with Mattingly in orbit and the three made their way home, eventually splashing down safely in the South Pacific, 220 miles south-east of Christmas Island.

In total, their mission had lasted 12 days, two hours and 37 minutes.

Of course, any mission to Mars would be spoken of in terms of years absent from Earth, not days. The technical challenges would be enormous and it has been suggested that the best way to achieve it would be to establish a base on the Moon, where astronauts could acclimatise and prepare. And, of course, construction of the vessel to make the journey to Mars would be infinitely easier in the zero-gravity environment of the Moon. But Duke is torn on the subject.

CD: “I think a Moon base is not necessary to get to Mars, but I think it will be helpful. It would give you a chance to develop and mature some systems; long duration, deep space stuff; and you’re close enough to get some help, via radio from Earth. Plus it’s a great place for science; astronomical observations in all wavelengths. I see the Moon as a science station in the future. You wouldn’t want to land on the Moon and launch to Mars. That would be very inefficient. [You would want to] build something in Earth orbit, launch it and be on your way.”

Then there are the distances involved…

CD: “Once you start to Mars; once you get out there, you’re basically independent. In terms of communications, instead of just seconds [for radio signals to reach Earth], if it came to ‘Houston, I gotta problem,” they don’t immediately respond, like we did on Apollo 13.”

Of course, mankind would not have landed on the Moon in 1969, were it not for two things: conquered Nazi rocket technology and post-war anti-Communist paranoia in the United States. The first, using plundered minds and processes, facilitated the programme and the second freed up enough money to finance what was and remains an enormously expensive endeavour. With Soviet Russia having placed the first human being in orbit in April 1961, in the form of Yuri Gagarin, President John F Kennedy knew the country was in no mood to be left behind, especially by godless heathen Communists. A few weeks after Gagarin’s flight, Kennedy addressed a special joint session of Congress and effectively demanded NASA land an American on the Moon “before this decade is out”.

From that moment on, from the top down, the motivation was there; the money would be made available; all that was required now was to put all those appropriated German scientists to work double-quick time.

These days, while the technological know-how is certainly in place and ready to go boldly, the economic climate has demanded that politicians are seen to view space travel as a mere frippery than can wait until things improve.

The Moon landing missions were a vast drain on the country’s coffers and, sadly, coincided with the even more costly war in Vietnam, which was always going to take precedence. As a result the notion of these big, expensive adventures into space became passé and a cost-effective alternative was needed. Hence the Space Shuttle programme which was – and had to be – economically self-sufficient: reusable hardware and missions which could be sold to the highest bidder.

The shuttle programme can never be called a failure when it resulted in the existence of the International Space Station, but the craft were never really anything more than more expensive, robust examples of the kind of craft in which Richard Branson and his ilk aim to offer holidays to orbit. They were never space ships.

CD: “I don’t see the leadership right now accepting the challenge of a big commitment to Mars. I think it will eventually come, but it might take a robust Chinese programme to challenge us again. I think [the fear of committing money to space] is a real shame, because for instance we had 400,000 people employed on Apollo at the height of the program and the economic return on our investment in space has been incalculable over the last 40, 50 years. I think any kind of expenditure would be beneficial in the future. It establishes a strong technological base, it challenges our education system, it motivates kids; it’s just a lot of intangibles that space has given to us and we seem to have missed that part of it. Everybody’s like: ‘Why are you spending all that money on space?’ The money’s not spent in space – it’s spent here on Earth. People are employed. You’ve got technologies that spread out into other areas of life, rather than just moving a spacecraft. The communications revolution that’s taken hold now is probably all rooted in the space program; the computer revolution; all that stuff would probably have come along [anyway], but I think it was accelerated through space technology.”

One would hope that Charlie Duke’s dream of a mission to Mars would come to pass sooner rather than later and if it ever did, it’s tempting to wonder, if he were given the chance to meet the Mars crew on the launch pad, what advice he would give them.

CD: *Thinks for several moments* “It would probably be to have patience. Keep yourself busy. Hopefully you will have a flightplan that will be more than just housekeeping. Stay involved and alert. You know, when you first leave the Earth [you look back] and even from the Moon, you can cover it with your hand… my first thought, when we got to the Moon and we orbited and came around and saw the Earth, was ‘We’re a long way from home!’ and that feeling is probably going to be multiplied at least 10 times on Mars, because you’ll eventually just see a little blue dot out there… which is Earth.”

A new film, Iron Sky, raises questions about what would have happened if Nazi rocket technology had stayed in the hands of its creators. It opens in cinemas on 23 May and is released on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand on 28 May. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-M1lFIW-qw