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‘It was very close to a break down’: How the nerve-racking last seconds of the Apollo 11 moon landing unfolded

File photo, The Apollo 11 Lunar module Eagle, in a landing configuration, as photographed from the Command and Service Module Columbia.(NASA)

When the Apollo 11 lunar module descended to the Moon on July 20, 1969, NASA astronaut Charles Duke was tense monitoring of the spacecraft’s nail-biting progress of Mission Control in Houston.

If the Apollo 11 CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator) at Johnson Space Center Duke was the crucial link between the flight controllers in Mission Control and the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they were on the way to the lunar surface.

The landing was by far the tensest moment of the Apollo 11, according to the former pilot of the air force. “It was very close to a cut off because of fuel problems,” he said to Fox News during a New York City event on Friday, hosted by lens maker Zeiss, optical technology for the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury missions. “We were all holding our breath –” are we going to make it?'”

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“During the landing, we called ’30 seconds’ of Mission Control, which meant that they had 30 seconds to land, or the next call would break off,” Duke explained. “When we got down to 4 percent fuel remaining in the descent of the tanks, the mission rule was ‘call,’ as they are not on the ground.”

Spacecraft communicators are pictured as they remain in contact with the Apollo 11 astronauts during their lunar landing mission on July 20, 1969. From left to right, are astronauts Charles M. Duke Jr., James A. Lovell Jr. and Fred W. Haise Jr. (NASA)

13 seconds later, however, the Eagle module on the moon and history was made. “We had pulled it off!” Duke explained.

If Armstrong was the famous through the radio to confirm that “the Eagle has landed,” Duke’s response was also a part of the Apollo 11 lexicon. “We copy you on the ground. You have a bunch of guys about to turn blue—we’re breathing again. Thank you very much,” he said.

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Three years later it was the Duke’s turn to walk on the Moon, Apollo 16 lunar module pilot. “They were unique experiences for Mission Control is a very exciting time, but you are not the emotions you have when you go to the Moon,” he said. “I think it was more tense in the Mission Control than it was up on the Moon – because you don’t have any visual, you’re just going to listen.”

Flight controllers in the Mission Control applauded the landing and the success of the Apollo 11 on the moon mission on 24 July 1969. (NASA)

The Apollo 16 lunar module, carrying the Duke and his fellow astronaut John Young landed on the Moon on 20 April 1972. At 36 years and 201 days old, the astronaut became the youngest person to walk on the Moon.

Duke, of course, had a good idea of what to expect on the Earth’s natural satellite through its role in the support of the historic Apollo 11 mission.

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“We were in the days of briefings that [the Apollo 11 astronauts] had [when they get back to the Earth],” he said. “Every system, every moment of the geology, they talked about. We got to ask questions, the engineers, the scientists all got involved in the debriefings.”

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his iconic Apollo space suit poses for a portrait on the moon during the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in July 1969.
(NASA)

Only 12 men, all Americans, have walked on the Moon. Duke was the 10th person to set foot on the lunar surface. He told Fox News that he wants to see the future generations of astronauts to build on the incredible legacy of the Apollo program.

“I think it’s important that we remember Apollo, but it is important that we encourage the children to be challenged and the hard courses in school and dream big and aim high, and you don’t know what life will bring,” he said.

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July 20, 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of the famous Apollo 11 moon landing.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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