Astronaut Charlie Duke conquered space, but without divine intervention he was about to lose his family. by Tom Neven
Only 12 men have done it in the history of civilization. For Charlie Duke, it was the culmination of a lifetime of study and training. Standing on the moon's rough Descartes Highlands in April 1972, the Apollo 16 lunar module commander was, literally, over the earth with pride. After a 71-hour mission, he and astronaut John Young left a few of the usual mementos from earth, such as an American flag, before leaving the moon.
Charlie left another, more significant object: a snapshot of his family enclosed in a plastic bag. It was a telling gesture because, while the moon mission had gone almost flawlessly and he was at the height of his career, Charlie's family back on earth was close to crashing. Divorce was looming on the horizon, and Charlie was a tyrant to his children. But as God's creation was evident that day in the magnificent blue jewel of the earth suspended in space, God's handiwork was also made evident as He would come to rescue a failing marriage and reconcile husband, wife and children.
An Unlikely Dream
Charlie Duke had never dreamed of being an astronaut. "We had Buck Rogers and cartoons like that when I was growing up," he says, "but I had really no desire to do anything, no desire to fly, much less even think about going into space."
But while attending the U.S. Naval Academy, he fell in love with airplanes and, upon graduating in 1975, transferred his commission to the Air Force to become a fighter pilot. Up to that time, he remembers, space travel was just a fantasy. But the same year he graduated, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and in April 1961 put the first man into orbit, Yuri Gagarin. "After the United States put Alan Shepard into space, the dream started bubbling," Charlie says.
The dream took a short detour, though. In 1962, while in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he met a young woman named Dotty.
"She had a charming personality, a beautiful smile, and there was a magnetism between us-still is-that I just knew she was the one," he says.
They married on June 1, 1963, in Atlanta. "When Dotty and I were first married we even discussed getting out of the military,' Charlie says. "But it turned out that after MIT I had a commitment of two years to the Air Force. Then I was sent to test pilot school, which gave me another two-year commitment, and all of a sudden the astronaut program came up, and there we were."
In 1966 Charlie was one of only 19 selected out of thousands of astronaut candidates.
The following years involved intense training and a lot of time at the "office." In the meantime, two sons, Charles and Tom, were born.
On the shoals
"Our marriage started coming under a lot of strain, especially when we got to NASA," he says. "The travel and the intensity of the job, Dotty at home with two little kids-I'd say we were steaming full-speed toward the rocks of divorce by 1972."
His relationship with his sons was also headed for a wreck. "I was a very strong disciplinarian. Sort of a military drill instructor dad, these are the rules, this is what I expect you to do. I demanded, basically, perfection from these kids," he says. "I was gone a lot. I would come home, we would have to readjust, and I was on them again. So it was a strained relationship, and they didn't want to be around their dad too much."
By 1975, Dotty was in despair. Since college, she had tried to fill her life with other things. "Sunday school, career, philosophy, good works, volunteering, things like that,' she says. "I was trying to find if there must be some reason we're here on earth." Her marriage to Charlie, she later realized, was just another attempt to fill the void.
"I had been faithful in Sunday school and throughout college," she says. "I respected Jesus. I knew who Jesus was, I said He was my Savior, I hoped I was going to heaven, but it was more of a Sunday event for me. It didn't really control my life. I was in charge of my life."
Soon her despair reached the point of contemplating suicide. But in October of that year, the church they attended held a weekend conference called Faith Alive. "I had never really heard the gospel in a way that it would relate to me," Dotty says. "That's when I made a commitment to find out if God was real. The way I was going to find out was to start praying, specific praying. It took about a month for enough prayers to be answered for me to realize that it was true: God is who He says He is."
And gradually Dotty began to climb out of her despair. "One night in bed I just said, 'Charlie, I can't depend on you any more. I have to depend on the Lord,' I had tried marriage; I had tried all these other things. And marriage failed me, too. Charlie didn't fail me, because I was looking for him to be the perfect husband in the perfect marriage. That was my Cinderella dream."
Charlie remembers that night. "Well, it hurt my feelings," he says. "I didn't understand the spiritual focus of her statement. Actually, as it turned out, I really loved it because she wasn't on me any more, she was not nagging. I didn't have to change."
Soon thereafter Charlie retired from the Air Force, moved to New Braunfels, Texas, and bought into a beer distributorship. "Two years later I'd gotten really upset with this business," he says. "I decided to sell it in March 1978."
The next month, friends invited Charlie and Dotty to a weekend retreat at the T-Bar-M Ranch. During a Walk Thru the Bible study, Charlie's eyes were opened. "I just got fascinated with all of that stuff," he says. "I realized that weekend that Jesus really is who He says He is. So after that weekend, as we were getting ready to leave, we were sitting in our automobile and I just told Dotty, 'You know, Darling, there's no doubt in my mind that Jesus Christ really is the Son of God, and Lord, I just commit my life to You."
Dotty's reaction: She clapped her hands and smiled. "That's exactly what God's been waiting to hear," she said.
'The Lord spoke to my heart," Charlie says. "He said, 'The problem with your marriage is you don't love your wife like I love you.' I said, 'Lord, You're right, but I'd like to. Help me to be the husband You want me to be.' That process is still going on, trying to be a husband and father and grandfather, the person that God wants me to be."
Charlie also came across Proverbs 18:21: "The tongue has the power of life and death."
"The Lord spoke to me and said, 'You have cursed your own children.' It was true. We can be devastating with our words."
The Master's Hand
Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." Charlie has seen the truth of that from a perspective few have. But one does not need only look skyward to see God at work.
"Our story really is the power of God to heal relationships," Charlie says. "I don't care how broken a relationship is; Jesus can heal it if we are humble and seek God's will. It's been a tremendously exciting adventure as we walk with the Lord as a couple and see God's hand in our marriage as He saved us from the divorce court."
(c) 2001 Focus on the Family. Used by Permission. Reprinted from the March issue of Focus on the Family Magazine.