The Family That Lives on the Moon

Article excerpt

In the lunar dust lies a snapshot of a happy family, left there by Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke in 1972. But that journey into space nearly tore apart his life on Earth, writes Andrew Smith

The photo looks familiar, because we've seen so many like it. Something in the two boys' Brady Bunch haircuts suggests 1970s America: otherwise it could be any smiling family portrait on any mantelpiece in the world. Except that this photo isn't on a mantelpiece, it's on the Moon, and the story it tells is far more extraordinary than the image first suggests.

In 1972, Charlie Duke became the tenth of only 12 people to walk on the Moon, where he left behind a portrait of himself, his wife Dotty and their two young sons. He took a snap of the scene and went about his business, and when he got home, the snap vanished into Nasa's vast photographic archive. Recently rediscovered during the process of digitisation, it will have deep meaning for the Dukes. Less obviously, it also holds special significance for me, because it was Charlie and Dotty's story, related during a chance meeting in London, which started me on a two-year journey that led to my book Moondust.

In it I charted the lives of the 12 men who walked on the Moon between July 1969 and the end of 1972. Their weird feat was accomplished with less computing power than you have in your phone, and quite possibly your watch, and starts to seem not just bizarre but surreal when we consider that no one has left Earth orbit since.

Even Nasa didn't know what to expect at the time. Experts postulated a mile-deep layer of dust which would swallow the spindly spaceships whole or contain life-threatening bacteria, if it didn't simply explode underfoot - while magazines ran artist's impressions of what subterranean creatures might lurk below the surface, hungry for these roly-poly white snowmen from Earth. Most astronauts rated their chances of landing at 30 per cent, same as the likelihood of their not coming back at all, but in the event six of the seven missions were successful and nobody exploded or got eaten.

Duke's mission aboard Apollo 16 with his commander John Young was probably the most joyful of all the lunar odysseys. The two men had experienced so many technical problems on the way down that when they hit ground, their delight was palpable and infectious, with the BBC's correspondent Reg Turnill describing them as "fairly tumbling out on to the Moon". Over three Earth days and nights among the bleakly beautiful mountains of the Descartes Highland Plain, they conducted lots of science and collected 200 pounds of rock, but still found time to terrify Mission Control with a "Lunar Olympics" and a "Lunar Grand Prix" in their Moon rover. Young's final words to Mission Control from the surface were "Man, you don't know how much fun this has been," in response to which a voice chuckled, "We concur, John."

One of the chief questions on my mind when I set out to find the Moonwalkers was "Where do you go after you've been to the Moon? What could ever match that experience? And the 12 provided an unlikely range of answers. Jim Irwin of Apollo 15, who thought he heard God whispering to him as he moved through the eerie landscape, left Nasa to found a ministry and eventually led two expeditions in search of Noah's Ark. Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14 had an "epiphany" on the way back, in which he thought he sensed a consciousness in the void, and ended up a New Age guru in Florida. Alan Bean of Apollo 12 became a painter, endlessly rendering scenes from the Moon landings in oils.

Others had a tougher time settling back into terrestrial life, and Charlie Duke was one of those. The astronauts' nurse, Dee O'Hara, described a kind of "Earth rage" among the early astronauts, who were always bumping into things while their eyes were trained on the sky, a part of them still up there. Nearly all got divorced not long after returning.

One of the youngest and best-liked members of the Astronaut Corps, Duke drifted for a while, unable to find anything to excite him. …