The audience at the Starmus festival in Tenerife were kept entertained by retired astronaut Charlie Duke’s tale of the day he landed on the Moon as Apollo 16’s Lunar Module Pilot back in 1972 this week.
“I would like to say what this talk is not about,” began Duke, whose presentation was entitled the ‘Dark side of the Moon’. “This talk is not about a secret landing on the backside of the Moon where we found Russians building a Moon base. It’s not about Apollo 11, which actually did land on the backside of the Moon. It’s not about the Transformers 3 movie, and it’s not about some strange discovery of some strange aliens on the backside of the Moon.”
Obviously – and as Duke pointed out – there isn’t a dark side of the Moon given that it rotates once every 28 days, supplying two weeks of day followed by two weeks of night on every spot of the lunar surface. The Earth’s rotation is ‘synchronised’ with our companion, which means that we constantly see the same face from our planet.
“All of the Apollo missions landed with a low sun angle,” explained Duke. “And that was going to give us definition of the lunar surface. If you tried to land at high noon, the surface was all washed out. You couldn’t see any of the craters or any of the elevation changes. We had to go into orbit from the dark side of the Moon.”
On approaching the surface of our lunar companion, which was bathed in darkness, Duke said: “It was the most eerie feeling and there was the most dramatic sunrise I have ever seen. Sunrises on Earth become increasingly brighter, but with those on the Moon, it’s just instant.”
Apollo 16 couldn’t land on the far side of the Moon, since they needed to be in immediate contact with Earth. So they landed on a hilly region surrounding the Descartes crater, which had two basic terrains for exploration and sampling.
Duke and his crew were meant to go straight outside after they landed, but since they were “late” in arriving on the lunar surface, they didn’t get the chance. “We went to sleep instead but that’s pretty hard to do – straight after landing on the Moon,” laughed Duke. “But with sleeping pills, I was able to do it.”
“The Moon was a dramatic place, let me say,” said the Apollo astronaut. “We landed in Descartes on these plains near a deep valley that was 10 kilometre- (6.2 mile-) wide and we were to explore this valley over our three-day stay.”
It soon became clear that samples collected from the area were made up of debris brought about by impact events. “All the rocks in that area were from a meteor impact and we had three colours of rocks – grey ones, white ones and black ones,” said Duke. “Lesson one of geology is to pick one up of every colour. We were able to get a full suite of Moon rocks.”
Walking on the Moon, Duke recalled the time that he left a picture of his family in the lunar soil and the breathtaking view he got of our planet. “From our position on the Moon, the Earth was directly overhead and it stayed there,” he said. “But if you looked up, you could only see the inside of your helmet. I never got to see the Earth from the Moon until I fell backwards – it scared me half to death!”
Recalling the Apollo 16 launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with crew members John Young and Ken Mattingly, Duke couldn’t forget how nervous he was combined with the sheer force of liftoff on a Saturn V rocket.
“We didn’t liftoff very fast, but we were shaking from side-to-side like crazy,” Duke said. “I got a little nervous. We couldn’t see outside of Apollo at this point since the windows were covered over. My heart was pounding and I was thinking ‘I hope this thing makes it’ as the shaking was so intense. My heart rate was 144 beats per minute!”