Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke and Mission Control flight director Gerry Griffin visit Canberra

Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke and Mission Control flight director Gerry Griffin visit Canberra

It was an attempt to break the world's high jump record in outer space that almost ended in disaster.

But Charlie Duke, the youngest man to step foot on the moon, lived to tell the tale and will be soon in Canberra to share more memories.

Mr Duke and Apollo flight director Gerry Griffin are visiting the nation’s capital in a whirlwind stopover for the tour of the film Mission Control: The unsung heroes of Apollo. They both star in the production, and will be taking part in a Q&A session with the audience on Saturday, May 5.

Mr Duke spent three days on the lunar surface as the 10th man on the moon in 1972. He was 36 at the time, and travelled in Apollo 16.

Astronaut Charlie Duke was the 10th and youngest man on the moon.

Astronaut Charlie Duke was the 10th and youngest man on the moon.


His recollection of the trip was that it was “incredibly exciting”.

“I’m standing on the moon and it’s real, but it’s like you’re in awe,” Mr Duke said.

“I thought it was one of the most beautiful deserts I’d ever seen. Topography that was really rough up and down, rocks and craters everywhere, and a brightness about it.”

Mr Duke said he felt “right at home”, having studied the landing site so thoroughly.

“You didn’t feel like you were on a strange planet,” he said.

“It was an exciting adventure for all three days we were there. We were having so much fun and enjoying it we pleaded for another couple of hours, but they said 'get back in and come back'.”

That directive was possibly due to the scariest moment Mr Duke had on the trip. Before he returned to Earth, he tried to set the high jump record for space. What he didn’t anticipate was the effect of the life support system on his back, which in space weighed as much as he did.

“I started going over backwards, so I was four feet in the air going over backwards and that was scary. [The life support system] contains all your oxygen, regulation power, cooling system. If it breaks, you’re dead. Fortunately I was able to roll right, and I broke my fall on my right hand and leg and fortunately everything held together. Mission control was very, very upset. It was no more high jump and get back inside.”

Astronaut Charlie Duke.

Astronaut Charlie Duke.

Mr Duke said the most challenging part of the trip was landing on the moon. While he had studied the landing spot from photographs they didn’t show the finer details of the site.

“When you start coming in you realise the moon is really rough, and there’s rocks and craters that you didn’t see [in the photographs] everywhere. You’ve got to make a quick decision to pick a landing site that is level, crater free and rock free. That part of it is very, very dynamic.

“I think that was probably the most challenging time.”

Mr Duke was one of the few astronauts to see space flights from both ends. He was in Mission Control for Apollo 10 and 11.

“I saw the young, talented and experienced in Mission Control do an outstanding job. I’ve always said I wouldn’t have landed on the moon if it hadn’t been from the expertise of Mission Control, they’re the unsung heroes.”

Charlie Duke in Mission Control.

Charlie Duke in Mission Control.

Mr Griffin directed Mr Duke’s flight and moon landing and the two remain good friends. Mr Griffin spent years in Mission Control. He was just 33 when he was appointed flight director.

During the Apollo program’s seventh manned mission, Mr Griffin left Apollo Mission Control to play a game of softball when that now-famous call, “Houston, we’ve had a problem” came through from Apollo 13. The mission was supposed to be the third to land on the moon, but an explosion in one of the oxygen tanks crippled the spacecraft during flight, and the crew were forced to orbit the moon without landing and return to Earth. Mr Griffin was a technical advisor for the Apollo 13 film starring Tom Hanks.

“I was the gold flight director, each of the four teams had a colour,” Mr Griffin recalled.

“The gold team had just gone off duty and I went to play in a softball game. We had just finished the game and got contacted, and said they’ve had a big problem and you better come back to the control centre. There were a couple of us on my team, we went back into the control centre and we still had on our baseball garb. It was actually pretty quiet, they were right in the middle of getting out of the command module and getting into the lunar module.”

Apollo Mission Control flight director Gerry Griffin.

Apollo Mission Control flight director Gerry Griffin.

Mr Griffin said he stayed for about an hour before it was decided he should go home to get some sleep, to come back on duty the following morning.

“I went home and tried to get some sleep, I didn't sleep much. I got up very early and showered and dressed and went back to the control centre. Most of us were that way, it was hard to leave. The tired got brushed aside.”

Mr Griffin said their years of training taught them to never give up for the men in Apollo 13.

“[Their lives were in our hands], that’s how it felt. We never talked about them not making it. It was never spoken. We got very close to running out of options, but we finally figured out the power and got them back. We didn’t say it at the time, but the movie said it was our finest hour and that was accurate.”

Mr Griffin said the human aspect was what the film coming to Canberra focused on, hence the name ‘the unsung heroes’.

He said he felt at the time that he received plenty of media coverage. Since then, the technology aspect of reaching the moon has featured in more films than the critical human aspect.

“That [human] perspective is what makes the film very unique,” he said.

Gerry Griffin with part of the team in Mission Control.

Gerry Griffin with part of the team in Mission Control.

“It’s really about the people, where we came from. All these walks of life and all these young people literally came straight from college into the space program. There were a few older heads - we thought they were old because they were 40 - but it was an interesting thing. I didn’t have that historical perspective at the time. I was too busy to think we were making history.”

The future of space travel

Mr Griffin said he’s amazed that the younger generation are once again looking to the stars. He said the Mission Control film was designed to inspire, and he was looking forward to sharing it with a Canberra audience and hearing what the capital had to offer the industry.

During the trip, the pair will be shown around UNSW Canberra Space and briefed on what role the ACT is playing in the industry, particularly their use of cubesats.

UNSW Canberra Space director Russell Boyce said cubesat was the most affordable way to do breakthrough science in orbit.

UNSW Canberra Space director Russell Boyce at the Falcon Telescope.

UNSW Canberra Space director Russell Boyce at the Falcon Telescope.Credit:Andrew Taylor

However, that was just a stepping stone, he said.

“We use cubesats but the sweet spot for Australia is the micro-sat,” Professor Boyce said.

He said the difference was the size and weight of the varying satellite devices.

“A micro-sat is about the size of a washing machine compared to the cubesat which is the size of a shoebox.”

Professor Boyce said Mr Griffin and Mr Duke were part of the pioneering age in space in the 1970s, and Canberra was now looking to keep up with a new era of the space race.

“What they were doing at that time, they were involved in a paradigm shift, so people were venturing into orbit and they were leaving the planet. It was a disruptive approach to delving into new outcomes and it had enormous implications for what happened on the ground, not just in space. They were pioneers and it was high risk, very dangerous,” Professor Boyce said.

He said the world was now poised to enter a new age of space, and “finally Australia is poised with the rest of the world to play a significant role in that”.

“We’re entering another disruptive age of space.

“I’m hoping that particularly the young people that come along to Mission Control [screening] will be excited and inspired by man on the moon, but also start to realise there are really exciting opportunities for them here and now. There will be enormous opportunities in the coming months and years.”

Professor Boyce said it wasn’t unreasonable to think a Canberran could become an astronaut, but it would be by partnering with NASA that would allow that to happen.

“I don’t believe [astronauts] will be an aim for Australia but I do believe an aim will be to participate in international programs where there might be a NASA mission, a space agency mission and it could very well be a piece of technology coming out of UNSW that ends up on one of those missions.”

Professor Boyce said it was always important to look back and learn from the past.

“To look at not so much the details of the technology but at the attitudes and the willingness to be bold, be fast moving, to be agile in the way we develop things. To ask 'what if' questions. It’s that pioneering spirit and it’s actually something Australia is pretty good at. It’s that attitude we can learn from and take inspiration from, and not bog ourselves down in what if it goes wrong.”

Mr Griffin agreed with the sentiment, saying despite the apparent failure of Apollo 13, the only option was to keep trying.

“I didn’t think about it then, but compared to today, if something happens the naysayers say we can’t do that, it’s too hard. In those days, the leadership and the thought process was different,” he said.

“[After Apollo 13] we wanted to go on to the next mission. There was a message in that too. This was a time when we had great leadership politically and technically, and the country never waivered. There was no discussion of stopping the program, we would just fix it and go on.”

Mr Duke said he would love to see man once again land on the moon. It would be even better, he said, if it could be him.

Charlie Duke.

Charlie Duke.

“We don’t have a program to land on the moon right now, although Trump has asked NASA to study the possibility," Mr Duke said.

“I think we will eventually get back. I’d love to go back, but NASA basically said don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Mission Control: The unsung heroes of Apollo will be shown at Llewellyn Hall in Canberra on May 5 from 7.30pm. Tickets (priced from $76) are on sale here.

The show will be hosted by Australian astrophysicist Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith.

Kimberley Le Lievre is the Editor of The Sunday Canberra Times

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