That’s how close the first moon landing was from never happening.
Charlie Duke knows firsthand. As a NASA team member for Apollo 11, Duke was the main communicator with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin back in Houston’s Mission Control. Duke recalls those crucial moments 54 years ago—July 20, 1969—where a matter of seconds could have rewritten history.
Apollo 11 was dangerously close to running out of gas.
“The tension, you could palpably feel it in Mission Control. Dead silence, except for a few comments on the loop,” Duke said. “I called 60 seconds. We had 60 seconds to land or we were going to abort.”
Duke heard nothing on the other end. An eerie silence.
Hours earlier, when Apollo 11 was within 7,000 miles, it became clear they were off course for hitting the landing target. Adjustments had to be made. The computer started overloading. Error messages were popping up. Precious gallons of gas quickly evaporated. They were now just moments from aborting the mission.
“I called 30 seconds, and they still weren’t on the ground—but they were close.”
Thirteen seconds later, three magical words from Aldrin changed everything.
“Contact engine stop,” Buzz said.
“It was a great relief,” Duke said. “All that tension went out of the room and everybody started clapping.”
Armstrong’s “unflappable” voice then crackled on the speaker: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
A Meaningful Walk
As one of only 12 astronauts to ever walk on the moon—he was the 10th on April 21, 1972—Duke is one of only four still alive. And he’s extremely appreciative of the opportunities he’s had in life.
The devout Christian got a firsthand look at the handiwork of his Creator in a way that very few others have.
“In the book of Job, it says when God made the Earth, he suspended it upon nothing. And that’s exactly what it looks like,” Duke said. “You look out there and there’s this Earth in the blackness of space.
“You can see the moon, you can see the Earth, you can see the sun, but everything else is black. A very vivid black. The pictures do not do it justice.”
About six years after his Apollo 16 moon walk, Duke finally surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. He’d been struggling in his marriage and couldn’t fill the emptiness in his heart.
One of the first issues he wrestled with as a new believer was the idea that the Earth evolved over time, a concept drilled into him by scientists over the years. But he had seen evidence of a magnificent Creator and started studying his Bible.
“When I became a Christian and read the Bible, God spoke to my heart and said, ‘Are you going to believe this or you going to believe what they say?’
“I said, ‘Lord, I believe this. I can’t prove it, but I accept it on faith.’”
One Giant Leap for God
“The walk on the moon didn’t change my life,” said Duke, now 87 years old. “The walk with Jesus has changed my life.”
Shortly after coming to Christ, Duke and his wife, Dottie, who became a believer about three years before him in 1975, started to earnestly work on their marriage. The quest for the next adventure was no longer what drove him. It was his relationship with God that had his attention.
“We began to build a marriage on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ,” said Duke. “We’ve been in a ditch a couple times in our marriage, but He’s given us a wonderful family, a wonderful relationship.
Speaking of Dottie, he said, “She’s the wind in my sail. The ultimate encourager. She takes every opportunity to tell people about Jesus.”
The pair is passionate about their faith and have taken opportunities over the years to share their testimony on how God’s grace and forgiveness has changed their lives. On several occasions, Duke has partnered with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to point people to Christ.
“I’ve now experienced the love and joy and the peace of God in my life,” he said on a video that was shown at the 1997 San Antonio Crusade.
In 1991, Duke traveled to Russia to meet with Cosmonauts and military officers in advance of the 1992 Moscow Billy Graham Crusade.
“We really enjoy sharing our faith,” Duke said. “It’s a big part of our life.”
Just like walking on the moon.
But as far as a life-changing experience, even those 20 hours on the moon’s surface pale in comparison.
“The [mission to] walk on the moon lasted three days,” Duke said. “But the walk with Jesus lasts forever.”