Space legend Charlie Duke celebrates 50 years since Apollo 11

NASA legend Charlie Duke is one of just 12 men to walk on the moon, and is still the youngest. "I'm 83 and I'm still the youngest man on the moon, which is really a sad commentary, I thought we'd be back years before this," he says.

Duke played a pivotal role in Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong personally asked him to be the CAPCOM – or capsule communicator – on the mission. "[CAPCOM] is the only guy from Mission Control who has the authority to speak to the crew," Duke told guests at a gala dinner held by Omega watches, whose Speedmaster was worn during the mission.

Turning blue

It was during the Apollo 11 mission that Duke uttered his famous line, "You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue … we're breathing again," which was heard around the world as the crew finally landed on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969.

"We started having communication problems and that rose the tension level a bit in Mission Control," recalls Duke. "And then we started having computer problems … I thought we were dead in the water and not going to get to land."

Armstrong ended up landing the spacecraft just 17 seconds before Mission Control was due to call abort. "If you can imagine the tension in Mission Control, it was breathless. Then Neil said, "Houston, Tranquility Base here, the eagle has landed", in the calmest voice I've ever heard … [I said] "We copy you on the ground, you've got a bunch of guys here about to turn blue." I was speaking about us guys in Mission Control and it was true, we were holding our breaths."

Mission complete

A few years later, Duke had his chance to frolic on the surface of the moon as an Apollo 16 lunar module pilot, spending almost three days on the surface. "It was exciting, you never got tired of being on the moon," he says. After a three day journey home, the astronaut hit the earth's atmosphere at over 40,000 kilometres per hour in a ball of fire. "It was so much fun I wanted to go again!"

Duke never dreamed of going to space as a child, but wound up in the navy where he fell in love with planes instead of ships. A stigmatism in his right eye meant he wasn't qualified for navy aviation, but was taken by the US air force instead, leading him all the way into orbit.

Watch this space

Duke transfixed guests including Julie Bishop, Mack Horton and host Lisa Wilkinson at the lavish black tie gala at Sydney's Fox Studios, who sat at tables transformed into lunar landscapes, underneath a giant gold spaceman suspended over the room.

Omega has been intrinsically linked to space after its Speedmaster watch was worn by NASA astronauts in the 1960s and '70s. The Speedmaster was originally made for auto-racing teams and engineers, but was chosen for space travel after passing a series of rigorous durability tests.

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"The watch was mostly used for the stopwatch function [in space]," says Duke. "It was very critical … the watch was extremely valuable and it never failed. We never had a problem."

The 2019 version of the Speedmaster is virtually identical to the Apollo 11 version, with two new Speedmaster Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Limited Edition timepieces featuring the same craftsmanship that held up so well in the galaxy.

But not everything survives so well in space.

"I left a picture of my family up on the moon … it's still there but unrecognisable," says Duke. "We left a car on the moon. There's three of them up there, so if you want an $8 million car with a dead battery, I can tell you where to go get one."

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