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From the Carolinas to outer space | Charlie Duke reflects on Apollo 16 mission's 50th anniversary

Meteorologist Brittany Van Voorhees caught up with the former astronaut at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — It’s been 50 years since Apollo 16 — the fifth of the NASA program to land on the moon. On April 27, 1972, astronaut Charles Duke took his first steps on the moon, making him the youngest person to do so at 36 years and 201 days.

He still holds that record today.

For Charlie Duke, he’s still as excited about space as he was 50 years ago. But it’s hard to believe it’s been that long.

“I look at my pictures when I was 36 years old and I can tell I'm 50 years older,” he said, joking about his wrinkles. “But the motivation and the excitement of that adventure is still with me.”

Credit: NASA
Apollo 16 Crew: Thomas Mattingly (left), John Young (middle), Charles Duke (right) - Courtesy of NASA

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General Duke is one of only 12 men to ever walk on the moon. Duke says it’s a shame no one has broken his record.

Apollo 16 was the fifth mission administered by NASA to land on the moon, but it was the tenth crewed mission of the Apollo space program. The program ended in late 1972.

After ending the Apollo program, NASA focused on space shuttles, the International Space Station, and other projects for years.

But Duke is thrilled the United States is getting back into space exploration with a new generation of astronauts and new lunar missions, such as the Artemis program.

With Artemis, NASA plans to land the first woman and person of color on the Moon.

Credit: NASA

“With Artemis, NASA is focused on deep space again. And so hopefully I'm still here, when we get the next crew to land on the moon," he said.

While Duke is a former astronaut, he’s also a pilot, husband, and father. During the Apollo 16 mission, he left one token behind – a photo of himself, his wife, and two sons.

Talking about that memory brings a twinkle to his eye.

“On the back, we’d written ‘This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon in April 1972’. And we all signed it.”

Credit: NASA
Duke's Family Photo on the Moon - Courtesy of NASA

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Although it would be shriveled up now, it’s a permanent memory for Duke. And it’s the one family photo to make it on the Moon.

The memento was especially meaningful for Duke because he didn’t see his family much during the Apollo training. Training was demanding and while they were stationed and lived in Houston, Texas, most of the rigorous training occurred in Florida. His family only saw him on weekends.

Gen. Duke served as Capsule Communicator on Apollo 11 – the first American space flight to land humans on the moon. He also served as a backup lunar module pilot on Apollo 13 before arriving on the Moon himself during Apollo 16.

Duke recently visited Columbia, South Carolina came as the South Carolina State Museum opened its new “Apollo 16 and Beyond: South Carolina in Space” exhibit.

Credit: WCNC Charlotte
Apollo 16 & Beyond: South Carolina in Space

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The exhibit houses mementos from the moon, a copy of the flight plan for Apollo 16, and a flight drawing Duke made as a child on some of his math homework.

Duke was born in Charlotte before his family settled in Lancaster, South Carolina. They lived in a small house on Kenilworth Avenue. When asked what he remembers about Charlotte, it’s mostly family, friends, and faith.

“I can remember sitting in my living room, listening with my parents about the Japanese Pearl Harbor attack,” Duke shared. He was only six years old. 

“And it was right then, I knew that things were gonna change and my dad joined the Navy and we started moving around.”

At the museum, he had the opportunity to talk to students from his hometown of Lancaster. He encouraged them to work hard through the frustrations of life.

He told them to aim high and stay focused on their careers. His words of wisdom were: don’t give up and keep pressing on.

Contact Brittany Van Voorhees at bvanvoorhe@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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