To hear Charlie Duke tell it, his life’s most important moment did not come 50 years ago today, when he became the 10th and youngest of 12 people to walk on the moon. It came six years later, as he sat behind the wheel of his parked car alongside State Highway 46 in New Braunfels, Tex.
He felt lost by then — unhappy in his marriage, emotionally distant from his two young sons, unfulfilled in his post-NASA career selling beer. But that day, he and his wife, Dotty, finished a weekend Bible study retreat, and in the car afterward, he became a born-again Christian.
If his conversion story ended there, he would have plenty of company. But Duke would, in time, embrace a literalist interpretation of the Bible that contradicted all he accomplished as an astronaut and scrambled his expert understanding of the heavens.
On the triumphant Apollo 16 mission, he picked up a rock scientists reckon to be 4.46 billion years old — a relic of an ancient lunar crust that offers insight into the formation of both moon and Earth — and the long evolutions both have undergone since.
Today, Duke says he believes Earth to be only about 6,000 years old, and the rest of the universe with it — which is to say, he holds that the scientists overstated the actual age of that rock by 4.459994 billion years.
Charles Moss Duke Jr. is, at 86, one of four surviving moon walkers. He earned his place in history on April 21, 1972, when he and Apollo 16 commander John Young stepped from their lunar module Orion onto an undulating, crater-pocked plain in the moon’s Descartes Highlands.
He was already known to millions of Americans, thanks to his part in an iconic exchange as Apollo 11 made the first moon landing, three years before. When Neil Armstrong announced, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” it was the drawling, quick-to-smile Duke who answered for Mission Control: “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground.”
His own mission, the fifth to land, would eclipse the first in every regard. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent a little more than two hours outside their lander; Young and Duke, more than 20. Armstrong ventured only 65 yards from Eagle. The Apollo 16 crew, equipped with an electric lunar rover, drove 16½ miles across a far more challenging slice of lunar real estate. Along the way, the two climbed hundreds of feet up a mountainside, took 1,774 photos and collected 210 pounds of moon rocks.
They also made one of the most surprising discoveries of the Apollo program. NASA and its scientific partners dispatched them to the highlands on the belief that they were volcanic in origin. “We were briefed that the Descartes region was two volcanic flows, one more viscous than the other, and there was a contact in the plain,” Duke said. “We were to sample back and forth across that contact. So when we got there, we started describing these rocks, and they weren’t volcanic at all.”
Instead, the pair found breccias — mash-ups of different types of older rock, melted and fused together in the violence of titanic meteorite strikes. Scientists on the ground received the news reluctantly. “I got the feeling,” Duke said, “that their attitude was, ‘Are these dummies?’ ”
It wasn’t long, however, before the experts came around. “Everything we said they’d find is exactly what they didn’t,” said Jerry Schaber, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who was at Mission Control. “But I guess that if we knew everything about what we’d find, there would have been no reason to go.”
The expedition also collected some especially old moon rocks. On the second of their three days exploring Descartes, Young picked up a four-pound chunk of bright white stone that turned out to be anorthosite, a remnant of the moon’s original crust. Sample 60025, as it’s known, is among the most exactly dated prizes of the Apollo campaign, at 4.36 billion years old.
The next day, Duke bagged a dust-covered 10-ounce rock on the rim of the vast North Ray Crater. It was a breccia containing a nugget of anorthosite that apparently crystallized 4.46 billion years ago.
The finds were a bonanza to planetary scientists, because unlike the earth — which is constantly morphing in the thrall of weather, tectonic shifts, volcanism and such — the moon has been dead since infancy. Its rocks are thus archives of not only its own past, but that of its partner in space, which formed at about the same time.
So say the scientists, at any rate.
Important as they knew their mission to be, Young and Duke stood apart from other Apollo crews for the obvious fun they had. Both were Southerners — Duke, born in Charlotte in 1935, was raised mostly in South Carolina — and recordings of their radio banter often seem lifted from “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Duke’s first words on descending Orion’s ladder were, “Hot dog! Is this great!” Riding shotgun in the rover, he more than once urged Young to let ’er fly: “Hey, man, we could just go, babe,” he cried minutes into their first drive. “I’m really cinched into this moose.”
Young demurred, but Duke achieved his aim two days later, as they careened down the side of North Ray Crater and set a lunar land speed record (later contested by the crew of Apollo 17) of 10.54 mph. “Man, are we accelerating!” he hollered to Houston. “Super!”
Asked by Mission Control to sample soil beneath a rocky overhang — “shadowed” moondust protected from cosmic pollution — Duke stretched a long-handled scoop into the dark space, then mused: “You do that in West Texas, and you get a rattlesnake.”
Nothing in his manner suggested he and Young faced almost unimaginable danger every second they spent outside the lunar module — an airless vacuum all around, temperatures that swung 500 degrees from sunshine to shade, and a constant shower of cosmic radiation and micro-meteors smaller than grains of sand but moving faster than bullets.
A tear in a space suit could kill in seconds. An electronic glitch in their backpacks could be equally deadly. Were the rover to break down, they’d have to hike back to base. At one point, they were almost three miles away.
Duke was accustomed to risk. The Eagle Scout and Naval Academy graduate had been a front-line Air Force fighter pilot, then a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base before joining NASA. He didn’t dwell on what might go wrong. “You were so focused,” he said. “I wanted to do a good job with the time I had on the moon.”
Neither did he take time for deep rumination. “You were excited and full of wonder,” he said. “But you never had time to meditate on the spiritual side of it, or even the philosophical side — what does this all mean, being on the moon?”
He could appreciate the “awesome beauty of the earth, as you sped away, and the whole circle of the earth, and the magnificence of the moon and the stars when we got into darkness. You’d look out there and see the immensity, the blackness, of space. But it wasn’t a spiritual experience for me or a philosophical experience. It was just an adventure.”
He did contemplate the frailty of his home planet, which appeared as a small blue orb in the infinite black of the lunar sky: “From the moon, you can cover the earth with your outstretched hand.”
But those glimpses were rare while he was working. “The earth was directly overhead,” he explained. “You look up in an Apollo space suit, and you see the inside of your helmet.”
Splashing down in the Pacific to end the 11-day mission, Duke found himself facing a question that confronted many a moon walker: “Well, what are you going to do now, with the rest of your life?”
The Apollo program had just one more flight, and its seats were taken. Once Apollo 17 was finished in December 1972, the space shuttle promised the only rides into space. Those were still a decade off.
Besides, astronauts were not paid particularly well, and he was weary of scraping by. So, three years after his moon shot, Duke quit NASA and retired from the regular Air Force — though he remained a reservist, and eventually achieved the rank of brigadier general. He moved with his wife and their two boys to New Braunfels, outside San Antonio, and opened a Coors beer distributorship.
By this time, his marriage was in trouble. Dotty Duke had suffered years of Charlie’s long absences, his distracted indifference at home and his remoteness with their sons. She welcomed his retirement, only to find their new life brought little relief: In the struggle to launch his business, he was as absent, physically and emotionally, as ever. Dotty fell deep into depression. She contemplated suicide.
Desperate, she convinced him to attend a weekend couples’ retreat at their church. Duke found it interesting, but his wife felt a more profound shift. “We got home, and she went off by herself and gave her life to Jesus,” Duke recalled. “She experienced peace and purpose and direction. She decided she was going to love me. Jesus took away her depression and her suicidal thoughts.”
Meanwhile, the beer business was proving difficult for Duke. He was bored. His long hours didn’t seem directed toward any great purpose. “It was very lucrative,” he said, “but money wasn’t the answer.” In 1978, he sold the distributorship. Now between careers, he joined his wife at another weekend retreat, this one devoted to intensive Bible study.
Until then, church had been more social than spiritual for Duke. Raised Southern Baptist, he’d dutifully attended each Sunday through his childhood, at prep school and the Naval Academy, and a bit less regularly while a fighter pilot. After meeting Dotty, he joined her at Episcopal services.
“And I liked it,” he said. “The kids came along and we raised them in the church. But Jesus was more in our heads than in our hearts, so it was really not having an influence on our lives.”
The Bible study moved him, however: “I realized that what I was reading was either true or the biggest lie ever perpetrated on humanity.” Sitting in the car afterward, he told his wife “that I had no doubt that Jesus is the son of God, and I gave him my life. And I had a profound sense of peace come over me.”
His transformation was just beginning. As Duke started a partnership to develop commercial real estate, at home he immersed himself in reading the Bible. From its first book, he was challenged in much he’d learned at NASA, particularly the immersive training he’d received in geology.
Astronauts on the final three science-heavy Apollo missions traveled the globe studying the landforms they might encounter on the moon. Mentored by some of the country’s foremost geologists, Duke studied ejecta patterns around Arizona’s Meteor Crater, volcanoes in Hawaii and Iceland, the pits carved by nuclear blasts in the Nevada desert.
“Our training was from an evolutionary standpoint,” he said — it followed the scientific consensus of assigning “ancient ages” to the universe. The Big Bang had started things roughly 14 billion years ago. The moon and Earth had formed more than 4.5 billion years back. The planet’s features had been created and changed, time and again, over eons.
“That’s what I accepted. That’s all I understood,” Duke said. “Then, once I was a believer, I was reading the scriptures — Genesis — and it was obvious from Genesis that God said he did it in six days.
“So I’m sitting there, and my mind is thinking millions of years, billions of years, and this is saying six days. And I can’t say I heard a voice, but an impression in my heart asked me: Which are you going to believe?
“I think within a year I’d made up my mind that I was going to believe the Bible. The more I read, the more convinced I became that it was true.”
In other words, evolution played no part in all we see around us. And further study prompted another revision in his thinking, a big one: that God had worked for those six days pretty recently. “The chronology of the scriptures,” he said, “seems to indicate that he did it 6,000 years ago.”
“I believe that,” he said. “A lot of Christians believe that.”
A lot do, at least in part. A 2019 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”
A smaller percentage believe in young-Earth creationism, which holds that all the evidence of an old and ever-changing world — of continental drift, mountain-building, multiple ice ages and a fossil record dictating that dinosaurs and people missed each other by millions of years — has been lavishly misinterpreted. The idea has a staunch following among fundamentalist Christians.
So the news here isn’t that Charlie Duke is alone in his views. It’s that he is the only young-Earth creationist who has picked up and held in his hand a moon rock that the scientific world insists is 4.46 billion years old — and that his faith has caused him, in the second half of his life, to discount much of what he worked tirelessly and publicly, and at great peril, to establish in its first half.
He is rightfully proud of his accomplishments as an astronaut. He appreciates the astounding achievement the moon landings represent. He just doesn’t cotton to the scientific discoveries he and the other moon walkers helped to make.
“The dating of the rocks is suspect,” he said. “We have assumptions that we make to date these rocks, and the assumptions might be wrong.”
Much of what is mistaken for ancient origin, Duke suggested, is actually a product of the Great Flood — a deluge that, according to the Book of Genesis, only Noah and his family survived — and its aftermath. “When the earth was cooling down after the flood, the ice age came,” he said. “I don’t know how long it lasted, but several hundred years or more. And then it was warming up and it began to recede, the glaciers and stuff. There’s evidence that there were big, huge, massive lakes, and then when they burst, they sent the water down, and we see the Grand Canyon.
“There is no problem between science and creation,” he said. “God is the author of science. All the laws of nature, he put into effect.
“In every part of nature, every part of physics, I can see the hand of God.”
Religious faith has long twined with the space program. Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi whose engineering team conceived the mammoth Saturn V rockets that carried Apollo to the moon, became a born-again Christian after he was whispered into the United States at the end of World War II. “Any real scientist ends up a religious man,” he told the New Yorker in 1951.
The Apollo 8 crew famously read from Genesis on a live Christmas Day 1968 broadcast from lunar orbit. Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, took Communion using bread, wine and a tiny chalice, shortly after he and Armstrong landed on the Sea of Tranquility.
After returning to Earth from Apollo 15’s three-day stay on the moon in August 1971, astronaut James B. Irwin wrote that he was “relying on God rather than on Houston” during his mission. He later led expeditions to Turkey’s Mount Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark.
Apollo 17’s commander, Eugene Cernan — who flew eight months after Duke — recounted his thought, on considering all he’d seen in space: “Too much logic. Too much purpose. Too beautiful to have happened by accident.”
Still, faith squares with NASA’s left-brain, empirical mind-set only so much, and Duke’s to-the-letter embrace of the creation story puts him at odds with some of his old colleagues. “I’d like to talk to Charlie about that,” said Joseph P. Allen, a physicist-astronaut who served at Mission Control during Apollos 15 and 17 and made two space shuttle flights himself. “It reminds me of a story, a joke, about a scientist and a preacher who were talking. The preacher says, ‘God made it all only 6,000 years ago.’ And the scientist asks, ‘How can you say that? We have moon rocks that are 4 billion years old.’ And the preacher says, ‘Well, I didn’t say that when God made the moon, he used new rocks.’ ”
Duke has no quarrel with those who see things differently. “I have a lot of friends who I know are Christians, but they believe in ancient age, and that’s okay,” he said. “I’m good friends with several atheists. We respect each other. I’m praying that they’ll come around, but I don’t beat them over the head with my Bible.
“I don’t think God’s going to stand at the pearly gates and say, ‘How old do you think the earth is?’ ” he said. “You believe that, and I believe this, and we can still be buddies. Let’s grab a beer.”
Point is, Duke said, his life is richer now than it was 50 years ago. As awe-inspiring as it was to look out from the flank of Stone Mountain, high above the plain — to see the maw of South Ray Crater, a spray of white ejecta radiating like a sunburst from its rim, and the lunar module tiny and orange in the mouse-gray middle distance — he’s felt greater exhilaration since the day he and Dotty sat parked beside Route 46.
His marriage has healed. He’s close to his sons. He and his wife have shared the story of their faith all over the country.
He’s comfortable believing what he can’t prove. The scientists can’t prove their theories, either, he said.
And they’ve been wrong before. It says so in the Apollo 16 Preliminary Science Report, released seven months after Duke’s mission. “None of the returned samples are in accord with the preflight hypotheses concerning the origin of landform units in this region,” it says of the bounty he brought back to Earth. “The rocks that apparently underlie the regolith of the plains region are in no sense volcanic.”
Earl Swift is the author of several books, including “Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings” (2021).