Spurred on by @SpaceKate and her recent blog post about the talk in Pontefract by Apollo 16 Astronaut Charlie Duke, I thought I’d post something here as I’ve been thinking a lot about this the past week since the talk.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s. My parents watched the first moon landing when they were young. They can both remember it well. I, of course, wasn’t around then. I do remember they dragged me out of bed as an 8-year old boy in 1989 to watch the in-real-time repeat of the moon landings on BBC television to celebrate the 20th anniversary. But still, my connection is to the Space Shuttle, the winged space plane floating serenely above the earth, Challenger, the Hubble telescope and feats like Bruce McCandless’s first untethered MMU EVA (you’ve all seen that picture, right?). This was ‘space’ for me when I was growing up and these are the things that stick in my mind.
Now I have to be brutally honest. I had never had a particularly strong affinity with the Apollo program. While undoubtedly impressed and amazed by it’s achievements and groundbreaking place in history, and admiration for the people who made it happen in such a short time, it sat as just that. An important piece of history. As someone outside of that generation I had no personal connection with the program, the events or with that period in history. A week ago that changed.
Somewhat last-minute I found out that Charlie Duke, the tenth man to set foot on the moon alongside fellow Apollo 16 astronaut John Young, was doing an evening talk at a school in Pontefract in Yorkshire. At first I didn’t know if I could make it, some excuses started to cross my mind, but about three days before the fog seemed to clear in my mind and I heard this loud voice yell “It’s Charlie Duke, he walked on the moon!” (that’s the polite version anyway). Things were catalysed further when I found a cheap room for the night and realised it was only a modest drive from where I live. So I decided to go. Boy I’m I glad I did.
Meeting up beforehand I didn’t really know what to expect. I know the whole thing felt mighty incongruous. For those that don’t know Pontefract, it’s a small industrial town near Leeds in South Yorkshire. It’s claims to fame are having an unfeasible number of train stations (three last time I counted) for a town its size, being wedged between two major motorways and making sour liquorice sweets called Pontefract Cakes. Not much connection to space there! Still, here we were and there it was. The talk was very well organised (thanks to @Space_Lectures) and was held in a large lecture theatre at a local school. When I got in and got a seat the place was already 4/5ths full and by the time the talk started it was almost full to capacity.
What followed was an exciting, animated and enthralling account of Charlie Duke’s life up to and including the flight to the moon and his three day stay there. There are other accounts of the talk and the stories told (@SpaceKate’s blog post put it into words much better than I can) but what struck me was a man that is genuinely still excited about what he did 40 years and countless thousands of talks later, and delights in relaying the tales of his experiences to an audience. This bright, lively talk not only had me enthralled for the whole hour, it also did something else. Hearing about the experience and seeing it for myself through Charlie Duke’s words forged a connection for me to another time and place beyond my own lifetime. As any good story or tale puts you in a place beyond your own, Charlie Duke’s talk transported you to the moon, helped you understand what they did, what went through their minds, what it felt like to be there. After the talk we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to have an item autographed by Charlie Duke and (thanks to @SpaceKate) I had a lovely photo print of him on EVA on the moon ready to sign. That photo is now in a frame on the wall at home. I’ll never forget that evening.
In the days since I look back at my fond memories of the talk and feel my view of the Apollo moon landing program has changed forever. It’s gone from an interesting page in history to being something I’ve heard about first hand from an astronaut who went there and did those things. It’s changed my view of the program, of the people involved and of my feelings about it. Something that before I had little connection to I now feel some kind of personal attachment to. Suddenly I want to know more, hear more experiences and know more about it.
This is the importance of telling stories. Stories are mankind’s way of passing our knowledge of these great events down to new generations, for them to cherish and pass on again and again. “I was there” is one of our greatest assets and one of our most valuable sources of not only information but also inspiration. Charlie Duke’s story is a very special one, possibly among the most special of anyone alive today, but lots of people do amazing things and have amazing experiences and never relay their tales. Never believe that no-one is interested. There are always people willing to listen and maybe you’ll inspire someone in ways you never imagined.
Be sure to tell your story and listen to others who have a story to tell…