(Photos Courtesy of UNC Wilson Library’s Durham Herald-Sun Photographic Collection)
From 1968 to 1972, humans repeatedly went to the Moon, venturing there nine times and landing on it successfully six times. In practical terms, it means that 2018 to 2022 is a period of celebration and reflection for all of us as we look back fifty years to that powerful period of our human development. For space enthusiasts right now, there are hundreds of celebrations to attend, meet and greet photo opportunities with astronauts to seek out, documentaries to watch at film festivals (or via Netflix), and dozens of new books to read.
For one of these fifty-year celebrations, Brigadier General Charlie Duke—one of twenty-four men to travel to the Moon and one of twelve who walked on its surface—made his return to Chapel Hill, North Carolina on February 22, 2019.
Apollo 16 astronaut Duke regaled an audience of hundreds with his tales of astronaut training, some of which took place at UNC’s Morehead Planetarium, plus his adventures helping other astronauts get to the Moon, and then finally walking on its surface himself. It was surreal and otherworldly, listening to one of four living moon-walkers speak with humility about never thinking he would be picked from his peers to make one of these grand voyages.
The video that Charlie Duke live-narrated showed him comically attempting to fight against his bulky spacesuit to pick up a moon rock and, after several attempts, triumphantly catching it off an accidental toss only to realize he’d dropped the sample bag that it was to go into. He discussed a few of the scientific experiments he and John Young placed so that scientists back on Earth could learn more about the Moon’s history and physical structure.
Duke showed Young driving an electric car, the lunar rover, on the surface of the Moon and showed what the ride looked like for them using footage gathered by a rover-mounted camera. The rover kicked up quite a bit of moon dust that fell eerily back to the surface. The absence of air to interfere with dust falling highlighted the otherworldliness as that dust refused to make small clouds or puff out in a breeze that simply wasn’t there.
Duke brought us back to Earth as he quipped, “If you ever want a million dollar car with a dead battery, I can tell you where to find it.”
He recalled being Capcom during Apollo 11’s landing in 1969. As chief communicator for Mission Control, his voice was heard by over a billion people as he spoke with Neil Armstrong during and after that landing. Duke said that in spite of the tension of those most-watched minutes of any Apollo flight, it was gratifying that all his friends and neighbors from the Carolinas were happy he was doing a lot of the talking. Duke recounted, “They told me, ‘I only understood the parts when you were talking.’ I guess it was because of my southern accent.”
As one of Charlie Duke’s assistants for his recent visit, I not only heard his talk but also had the good fortune to drive him and his wife, Dotty Duke (UNC ’62), to and from the venue. I stood nearby and took photos of him warmly engaging with people during a meet and greet. I was able to listen in during his small press conference.
By the end of the evening, what struck me was not that he was an amazing hero who took big risks to help our country pioneer a new frontier. While that is certainly true, what struck me was his genuine attempt at connection with me—with anyone he met that evening—and the love for his fellow human beings that was evident in each interaction.
Out of over 100 billion people who have ever lived or the 7.6 billion currently living, only twenty-four people have ever gone to the Moon and only twelve walked upon it. If anyone could brag, be arrogant, or act like an angel who has just come here for a visit, it’s these men. They’ve literally touched the Moon. Charlie Duke, however, speaks of his time on the Moon with words like “an honor” and “humbling.”
Perhaps it is because he went to the Moon that we admire him. His warmth, humility, and love of his neighbors is, however, an even better reason to do so.
General Duke, thanks to you and Mrs. Duke for the visit. Come back soon!
Update: Check out the replay here: https://video.unctv.org/video/rtp-180-outer-space-michael-neece-5xtrqn/
Update: Thanks to everyone who showed up or who streamed this live. A replay link will be provided soon for anyone who missed it or who wants to hear about it again.
Previous: Tune in to stream my five-minute version of what happened when astronauts came to Chapel Hill.
Stream it (starting at 6 PM): http://www.ncchannel.org/stream/
(photo courtesy of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center archives)
Chapel Hill, NC
Within my busy life, I explore the Morehead Planetarium astronaut training program story for a few minutes at a time, scattering an hour of time across a day. When I carve more insistently, I get a few hours in a row. But on Friday, I got a whole day to savor my research.
I scheduled Friday off to help my father set up his photography exhibit, but then my brilliant mom and my professional photographer sister already had it under control. Dad didn’t need any extra help, so said my sister and mother.
Thus, instead of hanging photographs in an exhibit, I found and scanned newspaper stories, NASA contracts, and vintage photographs of astronauts and their trainers. The vault at Morehead has multiple levels of security, so getting the right timing and permissions for two hours was an amazing treat. My next stop was the Chapel Hill Historical Society where I sifted through 30 years of history.
I have confirmation of Mercury astronauts eating out while in Chapel Hill, a quote for the local paper from a yet-to-launch Neil Armstrong, and hints about the true reasons for Morehead having a part in the American space program. My favorite finds of the day? Tony and Myrtle Jenzano directed the Red Cross fundraising in Chapel Hill in the early 1960’s and Tony taught local Boy Scouts astronomy in the planetarium star theater.
What were the new puzzles solved? How many yearly contracts Morehead had, who signed them, and what fees were paid. I have new-to-me photographs of astronauts, newspaper write-ups of Morehead Director Tony Jenzano’s community work and social life, and even some humorous statements made by kids at Morehead Planetarium over fifty years ago that were captured in a catch-all column in the weekly paper. One of many: a lad, walking out of a planetarium program about the Sun, said to a friend, “It’s no wonder that sunlight can travel 186,000 miles per second. It’s downhill all the way!”
When I find these nuggets of wisdom and humor from the past, it makes me feel my research is picking up speed. It’s definitely feeling easier, like it’s downhill all the way for me, too.
I have been many things across several careers, including writer, historian, computer programmer, high school science teacher, corporate technical trainer, martial arts instructor, and planetarian. I love the diverse types of work and hope to have two or three roles overlapping during any part of my life, partly because they inform each other, but partly because it means I have a much larger family.
I had a dear friend recently contest the idea of work environments being like homes and colleagues like family members – “family can’t fire you or lay you off or hold back your bonus.”
Yeah, but I think they can though. Flip open your device and browse through the news of child abuse (and worse) among family members. Or just plan your Thanksgiving with all parts of your family, especially those who cast votes for the opposite political party.
The flip side is that if you try hard, work at it, and get lucky, you can find the best friends of your life at work. Mentors and supervisors can become like big sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, or cousins. Some become even closer. A select few can become chosen family.
One of my colleagues at Morehead Planetarium & Science Center just retired this week. She’s Mickey, the one smiling at you from the 7 o’clock position in the picture above. Wait, really look at her again:
Mickey is about the best role model I can think of when it comes to sharing tricks of how to teach science to anyone willing to listen. She’s mesmerizing, even when talking about branches of science I’m not “super into” (don’t judge me) because she’s relentless, subtly adjusting her approach to find the one right way to meet you on your own ground.
She notices everything around her, then acts to fix what is broken and help those who need help. She’s got decades on me, but has twice the energy I had ten years ago. Best of all, she’s a great role model for how to care deeply–about everything: politics, justice, science, education, children, old people, plants, wildlife, rivers, and even aliens if they are out there.
In the picture at the top, I have other dear mentors and friends, people from just one of my life-roles right now. They are people I would be crushed to lose contact with because they belong to one of my several families. One has changed the course of my life, a story for another day. Another has made it possible for me to write books, another story for yet another day. To quote David Wilcox, the American folk singer, “relationships are hard work. but it’s good work if you can get it.”
Some colleagues will always stay colleagues. Some are not able to have honest conversations or to treat you as an equivalent being with equal worth. But with all the others, your brave attempts to reach out can make many of them into far more than mere cohabitants within a place of toil.
How you strive to connect with your work family is just like any other endeavor–if you relentlessly foster kindness and caring, you cannot lose. You cannot lose because it is true and good and worthy of your effort, no matter what response you get.
Mickey, congratulations on your retirement. I can’t wait to see you at my house next week for an episode of From the Earth to the Moon. Glad you are still in my life!
In order to have more time to focus on writing books about Morehead history, I have discontinued the documentary project for now. You who supported the documentary, I appreciate and deeply value your kind words, sage wisdom, and willingness to give financial support either on Kickstarter or on Indiegogo. If you pledged financial support, note that the finances were never pulled since Kickstarter has an “all or nothing” policy and the campaign did not reach the “all” mark and Indiegogo was cancelled well before it concluded. (If you find this to be in error, please contact me immediately at email@example.com.)
Clearly, my research efforts and the book projects continue! For your support on that central effort, you again have my sincere appreciation. These efforts will culminate soon in a research trip: I’m going to Spacefest in Tucson, AZ in July. At Spacefest, I will meet with several Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and shuttle astronauts, plus space journalists and science documentarians.
Meanwhile, I continue to interview astronaut trainers’ families, former Morehead staff, and many others affiliated with Chapel Hill history and Morehead Planetarium & Science Center.
Again, for all you have done to support me in these projects, I appreciate your support and enthusiasm. I look forward to more conversations regarding this amazing history I am uncovering with your help. If you have any suggestions, questions, or stories of your own to share about Morehead, please contact me! I’d love to hear from you.