FINN caught up with Charlie Duke, Lunar Module pilot of NASA’s Apollo 16 mission and the youngest man to ever walk the surface of the moon to talk to about technological development, sustainability – and being “still qualified” to fly in space at the age of 86.

Retired astronaut Charlie Duke says computational power has been the biggest gamechanger for space exploration.

Duke was a reserve pilot for was a member of the astronaut support crew for Apollo 10 and mission control for Apollo 11, the first crewed landing on the Moon. During the Apollo 16 mission in 1972 Duke and fellow astronaut John Young landed at the Descartes Highlands, and conducted three extravehicular activities. He also served as backup lunar module pilot for Apollo 17.

Apollo’s computer had just 80k memory

Duke said technology had come a long way since NASA’s Apollo missions: “A lot of the calculations on Apollo and when I was at MIT was a slide rule. They were just developing these big computers. Looking back, our Apollo computer had 80k memory – my cell phone has 800,000 times that memory, so the electronic revolution since Apollo to today is just incredible in my view.”

With the greater focus on sustainability, Duke was asked whether he thought getting into space would be a possibility without the use of fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels needed but “exhaust problem” could be solved

Duke cautioned that fossil fuels would still be needed to propel rockets into orbit, but he thought reducing the emissions from these was a challenge which could be tackled. He explained: “I don’t see where we’re going to get away from fossil fuel engines to lift off and, to be honest, I’m not a very big fan or very big proponent of eliminating fossil fuels. I think it would destroy a lot of economies around the world and I think we’re getting more and more understanding and ability to solve the exhaust problem – the CO2 that’s pumped out.”

In terms of future innovations in space, Duke said there were challenges in terms of reducing time on missions to other planets and isolating cosmic radiation. But he added that these were issues which were being worked on by technologists.

“I’m very excited about the future of space. At my age, I’m not going to get to go again, but I’m rooting on the young men and women that are there,” he said.

Duke “still qualified” to fly in space at 86

With 90-year-old actor William Shatner, Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and former astronaut Wally Funk, 82, becoming the oldest man and woman to enter space, Duke said he would go into orbit again, if given the opportunity.

“You’re right, I would do something like that, but I’m still physically qualified to fly in space. I’m 86 years old, but NASA says ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you,’ and I’m not going to get a call!”


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