Telegraph Great Reads: Human Universe

Telegraph Great Reads: Human Universe

Human Universe is a celebration of mankind’s journey from apeman to spaceman in which Brian Cox confronts the big questions, the origins, destiny and place in the universe for humankind. – The Telegraph

In this extract from the book, Brian wonders at one of man’s biggest accomplishments – space travel – and shares the questions he asked Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke about landing on the moon.


The Wonder of it All

As of September 2014, in a population of 7.24 billion, 545 people have been to space, 24 people have broken free of the Earth’s gravitational pull and 12 have landed on another world.

In 2013 Charlie and Dorothy Duke, a retired, church-going couple from New Braunfels, Texas, reached their 50th wedding anniversary. With two grown sons and nine grandchildren, Charlie and Dottie must have celebrated a life well lived, captured in photographs adorning the walls and mantelpieces of the family home. There is one Duke family photograph, however, that holds a unique place in history. I myself have a copy of it on my wall at home, signed by Charlie, and it’s one of my favourite things. The photograph, taken in 1972, is an image of Charlie, Dottie and their two young sons Charles and Thomas when they were just six and four years old. The picture itself is of no particular note – a simple portrait of a family in 70s clothes, sitting on a bench in a garden. It’s not dissimilar to one of me and my grandad photographed at around the same time. I was in Oldham, the Dukes were in Florida.

The reason I have a copy of the Dukes’ photograph is not what it is – we are not related – but where it is. Charlie and Dorothy Duke are the only grandparents on Earth who can point their grandchildren’s eyes towards the Moon and tell them there is a photo of Grandma, Grandpa, Dad and Uncle resting on the surface.

Charlie Duke was the Pilot of Orion, the Apollo 16 Lunar Module. At the age of thirty-six he remains the youngest human ever to have walked on the Moon. Together with Commander John Young, my childhood hero, the two astronauts spent three days in late April 1972 exploring the Descartes Highlands, covering almost 27 kilometres in the Lunar Rover.

The primary scientific aim of the mission was to explore the geology of the lunar highlands. It was thought that the unique rock formations around the landing site were formed by ancient lunar volcanism, but Young and Duke’s exploration demonstrated that this explanation was incorrect. Instead, the landscape had been forged by impact events, scattering material outwards from the craters and littering the surface with glass. After three days on the lunar surface and setting a lunar land-speed record of 17km/h, Charlie Duke removed his family portrait from his spacesuit pocket, placed it on the lunar surface and snapped it with his Hasselblad. Inscribed on the back are the words ‘This is the family of Astronaut Duke from Planet Earth. Landed on the Moon, April 1972.’

I remember being four years old in Oldham when Apollo 16 was on the Moon. Forty-two years later I talked to Duke for hours in a diner in Texas, with absolutely no regard at all for the film crew trying to make Human Universe. ‘When I stepped onto the Moon it occurred to me that nobody had ever been here before. You looked out onto the most pristine desert – the most incredible beautiful place I’ve ever seen. No life, nothing like Earth, the rolling grey lunar surface with the blackness of space above.’

How ambitious was Apollo, I asked? ‘They gave us eight and a half years to do it and we did it in eight years and two months. Nobody even knew how to do it,’ replied the test pilot, who was used to doing things that nobody can do. ‘Yeah sure. Fifteen minutes in space and we’re going to land on the Moon in eight and a half years? But the remarkable part is that we did it, and I had a part in it.’ Would it be possible now? ‘No. We don’t have the manpower to do it. Four hundred thousand people and unlimited budget and you can do a lot, and that’s what we had!’ What do you say to people who criticise manned exploration? There is surely more to human exploration than just science. ‘It’s the wonder of it all,’ replied the astronaut. ‘And that’s what we bring – what manned flight brings to the human spirit, the human being – the wonder of it all. The beauty of the universe, the orderliness of the universe, and you see it with your own eyes and it just captures your imagination. Let’s see it, let’s do it and let’s discover it – that’s been the human spirit all along.’

An extract taken from Human Universe by Prof Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen © Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen, 2014

Human Universe by Prof Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen is available to order online today as a Hardback, Paperback or eBook. The BBC Documentary is also available on DVD.

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