Alan Bean and Charlie Duke, Moonwalkers
(from brinkzine.com 9/6/07)
- Alan Bean
- Charlie Duke
“In the Shadow of the Moon” won the Audience Award for Documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and beginning with this weekend’s theatrical release it’s bound to please audiences throughout the galaxy. British documentarian David Sington included not only some awesome archival footage of Apollo astronauts bouncing around on the moon’s surface but also included personal interviews he did with eight of the surviving nine men (of twelve) who had that unique experience between 1969 and 1972: Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke, Jim Lovell, Edgar Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, Dave Scott, and John Young. The reclusive Neil Armstrong was the lone holdout, but the more verbose Mike Collins, Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot, ably fills in the gap. This week, I was fortunate to meet Aldrin, Bean, Duke, and Mitchell when they were in New York to help Sington promote the movie. Below is an interview I did with a small group of journalists of Bean, the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 12, and Duke, the capcom for Apollo 11 and the lunar module pilot of Apollo 16. I indicate where I asked the questions.
Danny Peary: Do the Apollo astronauts stay in touch with each other?
Charlie Duke: We see one another fairly regularly. There are events like this, there was Spacefest out in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame has an induction ceremony every May at the Kennedy Space Center. The Hall of Fame started in the seventies, as sort of an adjunct to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, which was founded to fund scholarships for aspiring scientists and engineering students. We vote on candidates who have been out of the program for a certain number of years and have done this, this, and this. All of us Apollo folks are already inducted, so now we’re voting in some of the early Shuttle astronauts. You’re enshrined in the ceremony and get your picture in a plaque on the wall. That event gives us a chance to see one another.
Alan Bean: But we don’t do it enough really. Charlie and I had dinner last night with our wives and it had been a long, long time that the four of us had done that.
DP: Were either of you science fiction fans growing up?
AB: Not me.
CD: Not growing up, but after being in the Apollo program. I saw “2001,” and later watched all the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” movies.
Q: “In the Shadow of the Moon” is being released roughly forty years after Apollo’s beginnings. Other than the sensational visuals of Armstrong and the rest of you who walked on the moon, what does the film show that you think people today would find interesting?
CD: To me, this film captures the emotional side of the space program. Back then we were focused on the technical side of the missions. When we’d return from the moon, the others would ask, “How did the computer work?” or “What was that problem?” We were focused on that. I don’t remember one time at a debriefing, anyone asking the crew members, “What did it feel like to be up there?”
AB: That would have been a bad thing to do. Our boss wouldn’t have liked that.
CD: But for the movie, we were asked questions that brought out our emotional side and our feelings and the way they put it together was intriguing. I watch the film and say, “I didn’t know Alan Bean felt that way! What a personality he’s got!” The film helps us come across as human beings with different personalities. We also had different backgrounds but were united by a common goal of getting to the moon successfully—which we did.
DP: Is it possible to tell other people what it’s like to walk on the moon, or can only the people who have done it understand?
CD: To me, it’s very difficult to explain. It’s such a unique experience that there’s nothing you can compare it to down here. There’s no lunar surface, there no place where there’s no atmosphere, and though there are places here that have been untouched, they don’t have the character of the moon. And the excitement and enthusiasm that one has there, at least in my case, is very difficult to describe. It’s an awesome experience.
AB: I don’t know if I can explain it to people. If you went to the Grand Canyon and it was 250,000 miles away and you’re walking around in a space suit, maybe it would be the same experience—though the Grand Canyon is more awesome looking than the moon. It was a great experience and I believe a lot of that had to do with the fact that we were so far away from home. Your neck was out so far that you were literally betting your life on all that hardware and if you know hardware you know that eventually every single piece breaks. I always considered myself one of the more fearful astronauts. There were different levels of bravery among us. I always felt John Young was fearless. Pete Conrad was pretty much that way, Charlie was good about it. I always felt I was on the other end of the spectrum. When we finished an event we had to do—like trans-lunar insertion, leaving the earth—I’d want the three-day mission to just collapse down to about ten minutes. Because I’d always be afraid something would break in two or three days—and it did on the next flight, Apollo 13. You’re glad you’re there, but you want to come back. Those feelings always were there for me and that colored things
DP: So could you enjoy yourself?
AB: Oh, yes! I felt better than I ever felt on earth. I never felt stronger, I felt I could run faster and never get tired, all that. I was doing a job, but that’s the way it seemed.
CD: I like to put it into perspective. Being on the moon was like being a five-year-old experiencing every Christmas, every birthday, and every holiday in one’s whole life all rolled into one moment. I was like a kid on Christmas.
AB: A lot of the excitement had to do with, at least in my mind, the risk you take to be there. It was a lot of fun if you were willing to take that risk. The fact is you’re running around in a space suit and if it leaks, you’re in trouble. If a glove falls off, you’re dead. We didn’t think it would, but we knew it could happen. I’d had one come off in a water tank in Huntsville during a test. It’s like flying the Shuttle, where once every fifty-seven flights, something goes wrong. (That’s as good as we thought it would be. I remember in those years when we’d talk about the Shuttle, we figured we’d lose one flight in a hundred due to a main engine explosion.)
DP: What were your thoughts when looking at the earth from the moon?
CD: We didn’t see the earth from where we were on the moon because it was directly overhead. When I looked up I saw the top of my helmet. The only time I saw the earth was when we were orbiting and to be honest my first feeling was, “We’re a long way from home!”
AB: We could see the earth on the Apollo 12 mission. One of the interesting things about the moon is that its same side faces the earth all the time. It is gripped by the earth’s gravitational field and held in one spot. It wobbles a little bit, which is why you can see more than half. The effect you have when you’re on the moon is that the earth doesn’t rise and fall like the stars do. We always knew where the earth was. If you land in the center of the moon like Charlie did, the earth is always overhead. We landed thirty degrees west. So all we did was look east thirty degrees from the zenith and there the earth sat. I’ve always thought that if humans had showed up on the moon rather than the earth, it would have been tougher to figure out what was going on. Early astronomers like Galileo and Tyco might not have figured it out so soon because of the lack of motion. I can imagine ancient people looking up from the moon and seeing the earth full. Things would be moving around but there would be this beautiful blue and white immobile thing facing them. They’d say, “Oh, shit. I can’t go out with my lady friend this week because God’s watching us!”
Q: Was there any plan to land on the dark side of the moon?
CD: It’s not the dark side; it’s the far or back side. With a new moon, the back side is all in sunlight. NASA never intended to land on the back side. We lobbied a bit about getting a communications satellite at a point out there, to sit there so in the future we could transmit back to earth. We couldn’t convince NASA to do that. So the back side of the moon only has been photographed and had samples taken for various experiments. The Air Force had a total-orbit satellite that provided accurate mapping of the back side. It is rough, with many more craters, and it would have been a tough place to land.
DP: Did you take any souvenirs like moon rocks or dust?
AB: I didn’t take a moon rock. I’ve got maps and checklists and pins from the rover and little pieces of hardware with moon dust on them.
CD: NASA decided to give us moon rocks about two years ago but we had to give them away. I gave it to my prep school. It was from our flight but it was in a case and I’d never held it. There was nothing special about it physically. To me most moon rocks looked like burned charcoal that is white-ashed and rough. Some were black.
Q: What influence have you had since you left the Apollo on the international space station and future plans for America’s space program?
CD: I left in 1976 and for about a year or two, I did some consulting with the contractors. And throughout the thirty-something years I’ve continued to speak to schools and colleges. I was finishing my Air Force career and for nine years and I was the poster boy for the Air Force Recruiting Service. I went all over the United States speaking mostly to students at engineering and medical schools, as well as high schools, trying to entice folks to come into the military. This was mostly during Reagan’s build up of our military. Since then I’ve done a little consulting with Lockheed. I was on the national advisory council for a couple of years. So, I just sort of kibitzed, if you will, nothing really serious for me, because we’ve got a lot of different interests. Alan’s painting all the time. If you want good art about Apollo and space themes, he’s the guy to see. His art is really good—I wish I could afford one of his paintings!
AB: What I’ve noticed is that if they’re thinking about writing up new requirements for the space station, or new requirements for a lunar base, maybe medical requirements, they’ll have a conference for two or three days and invite us to come. We’ll answer questions they’ve dreamed up and give them some ideas and they’ll take them or not. That’ll be about it. That happened recently in regard to medical things on Skylab relative to the new program. So they come around from time to time but I’ve discovered they have to develop their own teams with their own experts. They’ll pick your brain and become experts themselves and move on. At the medical research events, I saw that the people who worked on the space station know a lot more about long-term space living than we did when we were there. They’re smart people at NASA.
Q: Has the space program since Apollo lived up to its potential?
CD: I think the Shuttle has done what it was designed to do, in spite of the two tragedies we’ve had. It’s a machine that’s very dangerous to fly and they’ve flown it successfully except for those two times. It’s time for it to retire. I think NASA has done an outstanding job with unmanned exploration, with the Hubble telescope and of course the two rovers we have on Mars right now. I hope we’ll be able to do the science with the space station that we intended. That’s going to be a big struggle to get that up and running and doing what it was designed to do. And now looking past that to deep-space exploration and returning to the moon—I am all for that. I lobby as much as I can.
AB: We had the potential when we got back from the moon in the Apollo days to quickly develop the technology to go to Mars. I thought we’d get going and be on Mars in my lifetime. I thought there would be training and they’d start building all the hardware. But I don’t think countries live up their potential. It’s not what people do. There were 128 years between Columbus and when the Pilgrims showed up, even though there were boats that could have carried people over to America the next week. Cultures take a long time or at least a generation or two before they say, “Well, maybe we ought to take the next step.” It’s the way of the world. I’m not discouraged by the delay, but I do think that unless someone gives NASA more money than they’re getting now, they’re not going back to the moon. They’re not going to be able to afford it by saving money.
CD: I hope they don’t do away with the Space Station, the most expensive engineering project in all history. Building that station was as difficult to do as Apollo, I thought. We can’t just build it and then say, “That’s it! Let’s go do something different!” I don’t know what’s going to happen. We get a lot of money at NASA and do good things with it, and we’ll keep doing that until someone says, “Here’s more money because we want you to do more.”
Q: Is it a matter of having the money to do something or figuring out how to make money once it’s done?
AB: We haven’t been able to make money from manned space flights, and that’s the main problem. If we could make enough profits from manned space flights, everyone would get into it. That’s what happened with communication satellites and navigational satellites. We haven’t found a way. That’s why I would start sending up entrepreneurs like Richard Branson or Bill Gates. If I went up, I’d be thinking about keeping on course for landing. That’s the only way I can think. Those guys could give a damn about that. We need guys who’d look around and figure out how to make some bucks. But they keep sending guys like me up—big mistake!