Astronaut, Lancaster native recounts moon voyages in new documentary

CHARLOTTE -- "Between 1968 and 1972, nine American spacecraft voyaged to the moon and 12 men walked upon its surface. They remain the only human beings to have stood on another world."

So begins "In the Shadow of the Moon," a documentary being presented today at the Charlotte Film Festival that brings together for the first, and possibly last time, survivors of every Apollo moon mission to tell their stories.

Among the astronauts interviewed is Charlie Duke, who was born in Charlotte and raised in nearby Lancaster.

He walked on the moon as part of the Apollo 16 crew in 1972, but the film pays as much attention to his lesser known role in history as the only voice from Earth allowed to speak to Apollo 11 astronauts during mankind's first moon landing in 1969.

Duke admits in the film that he was seconds away from thwarting that historic moment because the Apollo 11 astronauts were too long in picking a safe spot to land on the moon.

"We had a fuel shortage problem and a primary computer overload, and tension mounted at Mission Control until we were just about to abort," says Duke, who now lives in Texas. "Those final minutes just before the landing remain indelibly impressed in my memory. I remember mostly the dead silence in the room."

Less than 30 seconds of fuel remained when the lunar module landed on July 20, 1969, at 4:17 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time. Six hours later, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

Duke made his own visit on April 21, 1972, with commander John Young, and the two explored a more mountainous region, 7,400 feet higher than Apollo 11 reached.

In all, 10 Apollo astronauts agreed to talk to British director David Sington for the documentary, which mixes those conversations with remastered NASA film footage, much of it never before seen.

Honored at Sundance

The resulting 96-minute film has been critically praised and was voted best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. It will open in theaters nationwide later this month.

Duke has seen a rough cut and praises it for capturing "the emotional side of those involved, rather than the technical side."

His moments include recollections of finding letters from his wife and two boys folded and hidden in the mission's flight plans (he reads the yellowed sheets on camera), as well as describing his first glimpse of the Earth from space.

"I was able to look out the window to see this incredible sight the whole circle of the Earth," he says in the film. "Oceans were crystal blue, the land was brown, and the clouds and snow were pure white. That jewel of the Earth was just hung there, in the blackness of space."

The moon was equally inspiring, he says in the film.

"The whole time was a feeling of awe. The moon was the most spectacularly beautiful desert you could ever imagine. Unspoiled, untouched. The contrast between the moon and the black sky was so vivid, it just made the impression of excitement and wonder."

Back in the Carolinas

He is today remembered as the 10th and youngest man (then age 36) to walk on the moon, where he spent a record-setting 71 hours and 14 minutes. Duke retired from the space program in 1975, and has since been an active lecturer and Christian lay witness. He frequently returns to the Carolinas, where he has a twin brother in Lancaster and a sister in Greensboro, N.C.

"In the Shadow of the Moon" has put Duke back in the limelight, including a dozen interviews this week and a visit to "The Today Show."

"Hopefully, this film will be seen by a lot of young people who have a sense of exploration, and encourage them to look back into deep space," says Duke. "I'd like to see our country recapture that unity of purpose that it had during the Apollo program, and return to the moon or go on to Mars. I think it's within the human spirit."