Charles M. Duke Jr. was a NASA astronaut who explored the moon during Apollo 16, but he is also known for his crucial role as Capcom — the spacecraft communicator — during the hair-raising landing of Apollo 11 the first Moon landing.
Duke and his Apollo 16 commander, John Young, spent more than 20 hours on the moon in the Descartes region. According to Duke, he took the only videos of the lunar rover "in action" as it skidded across the surface.
Duke entered the Air Force in 1957 after completing his training at the Naval Academy. His first assignment after advanced training was three years as a fighter interceptor pilot with a squadron in Ramstein Air Base, Germany. When he was selected as an astronaut in 1966, Duke was an instructor at the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School — a place he had graduated from just the year before.
At NASA, he was a member of the astronaut support crew for the Apollo 10 flight, and then was assigned as Capcom for Apollo 11, the first landing on the moon. According to Duke, it was Neil Armstrong himself — the first man on the moon — who requested Duke's presence on the radio.
Apollo 11 had a dramatic landing. The crew was several miles off course, battling computer overload alarms and also running low on fuel. The lunar module touched down on the surface with less than 30 seconds' fuel remaining in the tanks.
"Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed," Armstrong radioed on July 20, 1969.
In Duke's excitement, he fumbled the communications back.
"I was so excited, I couldn’t get out 'Tranquility Base.' It came out sort of like 'Twangquility,' you know," Duke said in an interview with NASA in 1999.
"It was, 'Roger, Twangquility Base. We copy you down. We’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. But we’re breathing again.' And I believe that’s true ... I mean, we were — I was holding my breath, you know, because we were close."
Measles and engines
Duke was subsequently a backup member of the Apollo 13 crew, where he is most famous for accidentally exposing prime crew member Ken Mattingly to German measles. Duke had been exposed by his 3-year-old son.
Duke, who never had the condition before and got ill himself, went to the NASA flight surgeon. The doctor began testing all the astronauts and discovered that Mattingly had no immunity either. Mattingly was yanked from the Apollo 13 flight just days before launch.