Apollo 16 hero Charlie Duke kicks off Starmus festival of science and art

The Starmus IV Festival has begun today in Trondheim, Norway, and Skymania is here to report on some of the scientific highlights. Starmus is a major celebration combining science, art and music that has been held three times before in the Canary Islands.

Charlie Duke in Trondheim
Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke speaking at the Starmus Festival in Trondheim today. Image credit: Starmus/Max Alexander

This year, for the first time, it is being hosted by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The opening sessions today, in a packed main hall at the Trondheim Spektrum, ranged from the exploration of space to the quest to find planets around other stars and alien life.

Remembering Apollo 16

First up was an Apollo legend, Charlie Duke, who was Lunar Module pilot on the NASA’s penultimate manned mission to the Moon in the 1970s, Apollo 16. Now 81, Duke was the 10th and youngest person to walk on the Moon, in April 1972.

Duke recalled the excitement of blasting off atop a Saturn V rocket for the journey to the Moon, before detaching from the Command Module, Casper, to descend to the lunar surface.

Previous imagery of the landing area, in the Descartes highlands, had been made to a resolution of 15 metres, meaning that nothing smaller was revealed. As Duke prepared to land with mission Commander John Young, they saw a lot of objects and holes under 15 metres wide.

Astronaut Charlie Duke
Astronaut Charlie Duke, Lunar Module pilot of the Apollo 16 mission, is pictured collecting lunar samples on the rim of the 40-metre wide and 10-metre deep Plum crater. The parked Lunar Roving Vehicle can be seen in the left background. Image credit: NASA/John W. Young

Duke said that Young did an expert job in bringing the Lunar Module, Orion, down safely. Then as they described the nature of the rocks they could see from their lander, it was nothing like what geologists had trained them to expect. Duke imagined the experts back home thinking: “We’ve wasted six years with these dummies!”

Moon rovers could be engulfed in dust

Duke recalled how just 4 hours after landing, NASA had told the astronauts to sleep but they had been too excited to do so. When they eventually left the Orion to walk on the Moon, they unpacked a Lunar Roving Vehicle in which they drove a total of 25 km over the course of their stay, reaching a speed of more than 17km per hour at times.

The astronauts found the lunar surface, or regolith, was covered with dust. They collected 10 kg of rocks, including one the size of a watermelon.

When they came to board Orion to depart the Moon, they found that dry moondust had been carried aboard their spacesuits. When it mixed with the natural oils on their hands it smelled of gunpowder, a phenomenon mentioned by several Apollo crews.

Duke joked that when Orion linked back up with the orbiting Casper, its pilot Thomas Mattingly saw the dust floating in the air in Orion and closed the hatch back on them saying “You’re not coming in here!” Thankfully, of course, he relented.

One anecdote this writer found particularly interesting, as an amateur astronomer, was Duke’s claim that the temperature of the lunar surface at the landing site rose from around 30° C to more like 100° C as the Sun rose higher in the sky during their three-day stay.

NASA proof that Man went to the Moon

A number of astronauts are joining leading scientists, including 11 Nobel prizewinners, rock stars and other celebrities at this year’s Starmus. Fellow Apollo Moonwalkers Buzz Aldrin and Harrison Schmitt will make presentations this week, though Buzz will now contribute via Skype as he is not well enough to travel.

Famous musicians include rock stars Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Rick Wakeman, Steve Vai and The Pineapple Thief.

Sadly, ill-health has also prevented Professor Stephen Hawking, who is on the Starmus advisory board, from attending in person. However, his presentation, which delivers an apocalyptic warning about the future of the human race, will be broadcast live from Cambridge on Tuesday. Click here to visit the Starmus website.

Skymania’s guide to the Moon

By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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