Where do you go after you've been to the Moon?

In the lunar dust lies a snapshot of a happy family, left there by Apollo astronaut  Charlie Duke in 1972. But that journey into space nearly tore apart his life on Earth

The photo looks familiar, because we’ve seen so many like it. Something in the two boys’ Brady Bunch haircuts suggests 1970s America: otherwise it could be any smiling family portrait on any mantelpiece in the world. Except that this photo isn’t on a mantelpiece, it’s on the Moon, and the story it tells is far more extraordinary than the image first suggests.

In 1972, Charlie Duke became the tenth of only 12 people to walk on the Moon, where he left behind a portrait of himself, his wife Dotty and their two young sons. He took a snap of the scene and went about his business, and when he got home, the snap vanished into Nasa’s vast photographic archive. Recently rediscovered during the process of digitisation, it will have deep meaning for the Dukes. Less obviously, it also holds special significance for me, because it was Charlie and Dotty’s story, related during a chance meeting in London, which started me on a two-year journey that led to my book Moondust.

In it I charted the lives of the 12 men who walked on the Moon between July 1969 and the end of 1972. Their weird feat was accomplished with less computing power than you have in your phone, and quite possibly your watch, and starts to seem not just bizarre but surreal when we consider that no one has left Earth orbit since.

Even Nasa didn’t know what to expect at the time. Experts postulated a mile-deep layer of dust which would swallow the spindly spaceships whole or contain life-threatening bacteria, if it didn’t simply explode underfoot – while magazines ran artist’s impressions of what subterranean creatures might lurk below the surface, hungry for these roly-poly white snowmen from Earth. Most astronauts rated their chances of landing at 30 per cent, same as the likelihood of their not coming back at all, but in the event six of the seven missions were successful and nobody exploded or got eaten.

Duke’s mission aboard Apollo 16 with his commander John Young was probably the most joyful of all the lunar odysseys. The two men had experienced so many technical problems on the way down that when they hit ground, their delight was palpable and infectious, with the BBC’s correspondent Reg Turnill describing them as “fairly tumbling out on to the Moon”. Over three Earth days and nights among the bleakly beautiful mountains of the Descartes Highland Plain, they conducted lots of science and collected 200 pounds of rock, but still found time to terrify Mission Control with a “Lunar Olympics” and a “Lunar Grand Prix” in their Moon rover. Young’s final words to Mission Control from the surface were “Man, you don’t know how much fun this has been,” in response to which a voice chuckled, “We concur, John.”

One of the chief questions on my mind when I set out to find the Moonwalkers was “Where do you go after you’ve been to the Moon? What could ever match that experience? And the 12 provided an unlikely range of answers. Jim Irwin of Apollo 15, who thought he heard God whispering to him as he moved through the eerie landscape, left Nasa to found a ministry and eventually led two expeditions in search of Noah’s Ark. Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14 had an “epiphany” on the way back, in which he thought he sensed a consciousness in the void, and ended up a New Age guru in Florida. Alan Bean of Apollo 12 became a painter, endlessly rendering scenes from the Moon landings in oils.

Others had a tougher time settling back into terrestrial life, and Charlie Duke was one of those. The astronauts’ nurse, Dee O’Hara, described a kind of “Earth rage” among the early astronauts, who were always bumping into things while their eyes were trained on the sky, a part of them still up there. Nearly all got divorced not long after returning.

One of the youngest and best-liked members of the Astronaut Corps, Duke drifted for a while, unable to find anything to excite him. Eventually he decided that if he couldn’t find something satisfying to do, he might as well make money, so he used a contact to help set up a beer distribution company and was soon doing well in material terms.

Meanwhile Dotty, as she told me when I visited the Duke home in the leafy Texan hamlet of New Braunfels, was slowly falling apart. The pair had met in 1962 in Boston, where Charlie was taking a masters degree in engineering. Dotty, five years his junior, was studying art and not acclimatised to the handsome pilot and engineer’s martial milieu. “I worried that he might be square,” she admitted. “Not square in the sense of being a nerd type square, but in the sense of not being free, ’cos I was kind of a free spirit. And I put him to a test on that, to see if he could accept that in me.” Asked what the test was, she smiled. “It was rolling down a hill. It was in the Fall and I wanted to see what his reaction would be.”

Charlie passed: he rolled down the hill with his soon-to-be wife. But in the years following his flight, she claimed to have felt directionless and suicidal, while Charlie, gripped by what the Apollo 11 crew member Michael Collins characterised as “Earthly ennui”, had become a remote partner and harsh, alcoholic father. Only in quieter moments could the ex-astronaut admit that he was bored. Dotty tried everything in an effort to cope – even marijuana, she confided with a naughty grin – but nothing worked. She thought about following most of the other Apollo wives into divorce, but couldn’t face it. Her unhappiness prompted Charlie to withdraw further, which made her yet lonelier.

As someone with no religious faith, what Dotty did next still fascinates me. Because her decision to seek resolution in God is described in just those terms. There was no Irwin/Mitchell/Bean-style epiphany: it was a deal. As she explained it to me, her plea was:

“I have made a mess of my life, and if You are real, You can have my life. If You are not real, I want to die.” So she handed over her scepticism; her will; her life – just like that. And it worked. She forgave Charlie and began to accept him as he was rather than as she wanted him to be. He saw the change in her and was slowly persuaded to follow. By the time I first met them in London in 1999, they appeared as happy and united as any couple I’ve met. Charlie became a gentler, more supportive father, who is now inseparable from his two sons. Thankfully, he says, they don’t remember much of the bad times.

That first meeting had been arranged in order to discuss the Dukes’ missionary work for a short newspaper article, even if we spent more time discussing Charlie’s eerie trip to the Moon. But the most striking part of the adventure was not standing up there, he said, it was turning around to see the tiny, shimmering, jewel-like Earth: an observation I would hear echoed by every Moonwalker I spoke to. And of course, while there, he left behind that photo, which, given the lack of lunar atmosphere, will remain exactly as he left it – only with a much bigger tale to tell.

Andrew Smith’s latest book, ‘Totally Wired: on the Trail of the Great Dotcom Swindle’ is published by Simon & Schuster. www.facebook.com/totallywiredbook

Twitter @wiresmith

Space relics: what else is up there?

Each of the six Apollo crews planted a US flag on the Moon, and a recent Nasa mapping mission showed that five were still upright. The one left by Apollo 11 is the only one to have toppled, after their landing craft blew it over on the way back up. On 6 February 1971 Alan Shephard from Apollo 14 hit two golf balls with a club he’d fashioned from a six-iron and an excavation tool, while crew-mate Edgar Mitchell  also competed in their “Lunar Olympics” by fashioning a javelin from a lunar scoop handle. There are three lunar rovers from Apollos 15, 16 and 17 left behind, while in 2010 Nasa also found a Soviet vehicle lost in 1970 – which for 11 months had been driven by a team in Moscow before it broke down.

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