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Reach for the moon, astronaut tells kids

Charles M. Duke Jr. hopes his alma mater's students find inspiration in a lunar memento.

Published May 9, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Dressed in a gray blazer and khaki pants, the 70-year-old man asked the audience of grade school children Monday, "Do I look like an astronaut?"

"Noooooooooo," they answered unanimously.

"I look like a granddaddy," acknowledged Charles M. Duke Jr., but 34 years ago the graduate of St. Petersburg's Admiral Farragut Academy flew to the moon.

In a ceremony Monday, Duke gave the school one of the moon rocks that he and John W. Young collected on the lunar surface during the NASA mission Apollo 16.

Duke's 1972 voyage made him the 10th human to walk on the moon. He said he hoped the rock would inspire students in their own life journeys.

" "I hope and pray that each of you as a cadet will do your best to "aim high,' as we say in the Air Force," Duke said. Admiral Farragut is a "Naval Honor School," but on Monday no one seemed to mind a distinguished graduate invoking an Air Force saying.

Duke reminded students to work hard and achieve as much as possible, even if they can't envision their future adventures.

In his case, Duke said, he came to Farragut in his junior year because he wanted rigorous academic preparation to help him earn a spot in the Naval Academy. He became the 1953 valedictorian.

"I'm proud to say I'm a Farragut grad," he said.

At a dinner Sunday night with about 100 school supporters, Duke noted that Admiral Farragut is the only secondary school in the United States with two graduates who have walked on the moon.

Alan Shepard, who also was the first American in space, graduated from the school's former sister campus in New Jersey. Duke attended in St. Petersburg.

Duke told students Monday that becoming an astronaut was not a childhood dream. NASA did not even exist during his years at Farragut, and the Soviet Union had not yet ignited the space race by launching the Sputnik 1 satellite. If he had suggested something outlandish like flying to the moon, his mother would have "dropped a net over me and sent me to the psychiatric hospital."

While at the Naval Academy, Duke fell in love with airplanes instead of ships, but said he was told an astigmatism would prevent him from becoming a Naval aviator. However, despite the vision defect, the U.S. Air Force accepted him - he rose to brigadier general - and so did NASA.

What once was unthinkable became possible with the Apollo program. Duke said his father was amazed to have a son going to the moon. But Duke's own son, Tom, was less impressed. Tom was 5 at the time and growing up in a Houston suburb that was thick with NASA employees. Neil Armstrong lived a block away.

"I think Tom's attitude was, "Dad, when are you going to go?" Because I was almost the last in the neighborhood to go."

Duke said he loved the spare beauty of the moon, which he described as "shades of gray," an unspoiled world of rock that had been battered for eons by meteors and was devoid of plants or even moisture.

"It would be a Sahara Desert kind of beauty," he said in an interview before the ceremony.

Duke enjoyed going up Stone Mountain near a region called the Descartes Highlands in a specially designed lunar vehicle. Wherever they walked or drove, they left prints,which are presumably still there. Duke said he kept thinking: No one has ever been here before.

His fellow astronaut John Young kept things light by asking: "Charlie,what are we going to do if we run across another set of tracks?" From a perch 300 feet high on Stone Mountain "you could see across that magnificent valley" below, he said. Above he could see the orb of Earth, composed of brown landforms, blue water and white clouds and snow.

NASA recently has been designating astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs as "ambassadors of exploration." Each honoree such as Duke receives a moon rock encased in a cylinder of lucite, on the condition that they then give it to an institution such as a school or museum that promises to display it publicly. NASA retains ownership of the moon rock, which is less than an inch long, but it is essentially on permanent loan to the school.

Duke was the first astronaut to give his to a secondary school. Admiral Farragut is a private K-12 school with more than 400 students.

Duke said he is glad that NASA is working to develop a space vehicle designed to take U.S. astronauts back to the moon. Asked if he would be willing to risk another trip to the moon, he said, " "I took the risk and I would gladly do it again."

The only problem: "I'm not old enough," jokingly referring to John Glenn's space shuttle flight at age 77.

Just as the ceremony was ending, a cadet who was standing behind Duke collapsed. The school didn't release any details, including the cadet's condition.

[Last modified May 9, 2006, 00:41:15]

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