Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Charlie Duke's surface notebook at auction

The cuff mounted checklist worn by Apollo 16 Lunar Module Pilot Charlie Duke while exploring the Descartes region on the moon in 1972 is displayed at Bonhams, April 27, in London. The piece, expected to fetch between $200,000 and $300,000, makes up part of a historic collection of space exploration artifacts being sold at auction on July 16. (Getty)

How did this piece of American history end up on the auction block, in London? The Getty Image above does not do it much justice.

This is the notebook that was once mounted to the cuff of Apollo 16 lunar module pilot and Brig. General Charles M. Duke, Jr. (USAF), referencing sampling to be done during his and Captain John Young's third EVA, north of their landing site, from the "Ejecta Blanket" of North Ray Crater.

The artwork is probably only a mystery to me

Was it added before or after the mission, and was it drawn by General Duke himself?

A contemporary of mine who, like me, remained glued to the television just as much during Apollo 16 as during Apollo 11, calls one of the sketches "endearingly crude." (I think they are magnificent. Do you know what a thimble filled with lunar dust is worth, just for its science value alone, these days?)

A student, too young to remember when there was not an International Space Station simply calls the artwork "cute," and calls my reluctance to post the sketch seen here, "charming." I think she just misunderstands my appreciation of fine art, what Dr. Sigmund Freud was referring to when pondering "what's on man's mind?"

What really grabs my attention is the sheer iconography this notebook represents, not simply because Larry Scott and I became enthralled with Descartes Formation, and its fascinating magnetic anomaly or bright albedo, in our studies - though it is true that my eye is first drawn in a telescope to North and South Ray Craters, and Descartes, when gazing through the telescope at Ellis Cove.

Imagine, for a moment, stumbling upon the notebooks of Columbus. You know already, because of his son's Ferdinand's biography, about Columbus and there are samples of his handwriting, her and there, apparently.

Just as we've collected those splendid restorations of the photography from Apollo 16, however, there is just no substitute for the experience of actually standing on Descartes, at EVA Station 4, for example, or the rim of Kiva, or experiencing the actual Descent down into the narrows between the "Smoky Mountains" and "Stone Mountain," the very northern edge of the rolling Descartes phenomena.

This notebook comes pretty close. It evokes inspiration, bordering on idolatry in me, I have to confess. It is hard evidence real human beings walked on the Moon with a studied purpose, forty years ago. I didn't just dream that.

There are few seemingly both unaffected and deeply affected by that experience than Charlie Duke. We can't all drop in on General Duke, down in the Texas Hill Country, and especially unannounced. Fortunately, he did leave a virtual light on.

He has a website, thank goodness. It's bound to keep fanatical pilgrims, the curious and the kooky, at a safe distance. - JCR

(In addition to becoming Tenth to walk on the Moon in 1972, General Duke also served as CapCom during the Apollo 11 landing in 1969. Many have heard his voice and not recognized his unique part in the last anxious moments that first Terminal Descent to the lunar surface. General Duke was the first person to talk to someone on the Moon.)