By Peg Carmack Short
RETIRED BRIGADIER GENERAL AND FORMER ASTRONAUT
Charlie Duke had no great dreams about going to the moon when he was a boy growing up in South Carolina. In fact, space travel, he said, was only “dreamland”—a world inhabited by the likes of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon—and they were not of interest to a young boy like Charlie. His heroes were flesh and blood, men serving their country in World War II. “I was only six when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I still remember it,” he says. “I was very patriotic, and my dad joined the Navy after that, so military men were my heroes.”
It is not surprising, then, that Charlie’s dream was a military career. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1957. His next stop was pilot training and on to Germany to serve as a fighter pilot for three years. It wasn’t until 1964, while attending MIT, that he gave birth to the idea of becoming an astronaut. “I did my master’s thesis on the Apollo guidance and navigation system, and it was there I met a couple of astronauts. I started to think how exciting that would be,” Charlie says.
Armed with his dream, he volunteered for the Astronaut Corp. in 1965 and was selected in 1966. Six years later, he was walking on the moon.
The dream became a reality in April, 1972, when Charlie served as lunar module pilot of Apollo 16. “Walking on the moon was a great adventure. I was thrilled and excited, and my enthusiasm never waned the entire time we were there,” he says. “There was a sense of awe and wonder, of really belonging . . . a chance for exploration.”
It was this thrill of adventure that drew Charlie to the space program and what an adventure it was. Here he was, 36 years old, and soon to be only the tenth man to walk on the moon. What an amazing ride: sitting atop the awesome Saturn V rocket, which stood as tall as a 36-story building, weighed more than 6 ½ million pounds, and was loaded with millions of pounds of highly explosive rocket fuel. Asked if he was afraid, he replies, “Only that they would stop the countdown and abort the mission.”
At liftoff, the Saturn V generates over 7.5 million pounds of thrust. Charlie says, “It felt like we were shaking to pieces.” In fewer than three minutes, they were already 35 miles above the earth. He likens the experience to being on a runaway freight train. If you wonder what astronauts are doing during take-off, he says, “This one was hanging on!” But Charlie wouldn’t have traded a moment. He still describes the 250,000-mile trip to the moon, at speeds of up to 25,000 mph, with absolute clarity: the view of earth, the wonder of the moon, and the blackness of space.
With such an outstanding career and accomplishments, you might think that Charlie Duke had it all. But that isn’t the way Charlie saw it.
ALL AND NOTHING AT ALL
Charlie says he’s always had a positive outlook. But after the Apollo mission was over and he’d reached the pinnacle of his career, he began looking around as if to say, “What am I going to do now?”
His answer, after retiring from NASA and leaving the active military in 1975, was to go into the Air Force reserves and business. He began to channel all his energy and drive into making money. But despite the fact he was apparently successful, he felt empty and lost. “Careers aren’t God,” Charlie says, “and they can’t bring satisfaction and peace. So if that is where you are looking, you are going to come up short.”
Not only was Charlie coming up short on fulfillment and satisfaction, his marriage and family life were falling apart. He says, “When career is first above marriage and family, tensions develop quickly—especially when your wife puts you first. I was her god and I couldn’t satisfy her every need.”
His relationship with his children was suffering, too. He describes himself as “a strong disciplinarian combined with an explosive temper.”
The golden boy’s life was coming apart at the seams. Things only started to change when his wife, Dottie, attended a spiritual renewal weekend called “Faith Alive” in October 1975. Both Dukes knew about God, attended church, and prayed with their children, but Charlie describes them as not knowing God. But after hearing testimonies of people whose lives were radically changed after living a personal relationship with Jesus, Dottie gave her heart to him.
As Charlie witnessed the transformation, he saw her go from sadness to joy, and their relationship began to change. However, the real transformation came after Charlie attended a Bible study in 1978. Sitting in the car after the meeting, he prayed with his wife and surrendered his life to Christ. “All my life,” he says, “I had said the words ‘The Son of God,’ but I never thought about him in a deep way.”
Charlie’s surrender was real. There were no bells or miraculous signs, but he woke up the next morning feeling different. “I had an insatiable desire to read the Bible,” he says. “The more I read, the more Scripture convicted me of my attitude toward my wife, children, and money.”
He believes the Word really is “living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword.” Charlie says, “You can’t read the Bible without God speaking to your heart.”
As the Scriptures spoke to him, this became a time of renewal for Charlie—a time he describes as a “renewing of the mind.” When he began to see Jesus and put him first, healing began. “I sought humility and healing, and I was delivered.” He felt free of the love of money and his explosive temper went away. The new call on his life was to be obedient to the Lord.
Today he loves his wife more than ever and they have been together for 44 years. The Dukes also share in the joy of ministry together by speaking all across the country. “When the Lord tells us to go, we go.”
Charlie’s relationship with his children also changed, and he is now very close to both of his sons, Tom and Charles. The other joy of his life is being a grandfather to his eight grandchildren. “As long as God gives me [life], I want to be a blessing in their lives. I want to be a godly influence,” he says, talking about the grandchildren who range in age from three months to 15 years old.
The man who has been to the moon and back now reflects on his experience in a much different way than he did at the time. He says, “Walking on the moon was not a spiritual experience. I may have thrown up a bullet prayer or two when we were about to abort, but Christ wasn’t the Lord of my life—he was just a Sunday experience. We went through the motions, but my heart was far from a God-honoring life.”
Today Charlie sees the experience with a new clarity of vision. Now when he thinks back on that time, he does see that “the Heavens declare the glory of God.”
Reflecting back on the experience he says, “When I saw the earth from space it was breathtaking. I could see the circle of the earth, the Arctic Circle, the white of the clouds, the blue of the ocean—a jewel hung in space. When I started reading Scripture, I read in Isaiah 40:22, ‘He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth . . .’ and in Job 26:7, ‘. . . he suspends the earth over nothing.’ That’s just how I saw it—so I appreciate the accuracy of the Scriptures.”
Charlie’s astronaut training was to observe with a scientist’s eye, and today those things he saw—the orderliness of the universe, the wonder of it, the immutable laws of physics, and the wonder of the heavens—only confirm for him the accuracy of Scripture and the truth of God’s existence.
During the moon landing, the crew of Apollo 16 had as their motto a quote from 16th-century French philosopher, René Descartes: “Nothing is so far removed from us to be beyond our reach or so hidden that we can not discover it.” At the time, Charlie says, this motivated him and his crewmates to be the best they could be. But looking back at this through the eyes of a believer, it says to him, “Develop your mind, keep learning, keep seeking, and search the Scriptures for knowledge. Now I see that [Scripture] is the source of all knowledge and wisdom, and the true Source of all is God.”
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