Setting your sights (very) high

Former astronaut’s presentation delights George Town Primary School students

Dream big.

From anyone else except Brig. Gen. (retired) Charlie Duke, it might sound like a cliché.

Here’s why:

The former astronaut is the 10th man (of only 12) to have walked on the moon and was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 16; a former aerospace engineer for NASA; the voice of Mission Control for Apollo 11.

There’s more: He graduated as valedictorian from Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida; was an Eagle Scout; attended the US Naval Academy and received his master’s degree in aeronautics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

So when Duke urges kids to set their goals and study hard, they listen – raptly – as they did last week at George Town Primary, where Duke addressed them as part of his island visit sponsored primarily by Divetech.

“When I was a little boy, there was no space programme, so I had no dream of it,” Duke told the primary students. “But I had parents and teachers who encouraged me to stay in school, study hard, do well and then do whatever I wanted to do.”

Eventually Duke volunteered to be an astronaut, which required a couple of years of rigorous training.

“You never get too old to study or too old to learn,” he told the children. “I hope that in your life, as you grow up you keep your mind focused on learning. That way you can all be productive citizens.”

He went on to tell the children about the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (of which he is chairman), which gives away 28 university scholarships every year to students who are top in their class.

From the moon

After the initial words of encouragement, Duke literally wowed the children with his description of the 363-foot Saturn rocket (“as wide as this room,” he said, sweeping his arms wide to encompass the large assembly hall). It weighed 6.5 million pounds.

He described the excitement – and nervousness- he and the two other astronauts on board felt, and showed a photo of Earth from 20,000 miles away (and pointed out the Cayman Islands, of course).

Reminding students about the full moon that evening, Duke said, “If you look right at it, right in the middle, that is where we landed, in the mountains of the moon.”

The students were enthralled when Duke played his video, Charlie Duke, Moonwalker, which displayed, among other things, his antics on the lunar surface – some of which, he admitted, were quite dangerous and he shouldn’t have done. Like falling over backward.

Had his space suit snagged and ripped open, releasing all the oxygen, he would have died.

“The lesson is, never do something you’re not supposed to do,” he said, urging the children to listen to their parents and mind what they say.

Footprints and a legacy

Though 40 years have passed since Duke landed in heavy moon dust, his footprints remain, as does the photograph of his family that he placed on the surface, and the electric moon rover the astronauts used. (“So if you want an electric car, go get it, but it will need a new battery,” he joked.)

After the video was shown, and his photographs were described and all of his anecdotes were thoroughly enjoyed, the kids showed their excitement by asking lots of questions, and Duke was as enthusiastic as ever about his legendary adventure as he patiently answered them.

“It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” said Duke, who will soon be 76. “I would go back to the moon tomorrow if I had the chance.”

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