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Apollo 16 moonwalker is first astronaut to be named Texan of the Year

December 3, 2019

— An astronaut who walked on the moon almost 50 years ago is entering the new year with a new title in recognition of the state he has called home since he returned to Earth.

Charles Duke, who became the 10th and youngest person to step foot on the lunar surface in 1972, has been named the 2020 Texan of the Year by the Texas Legislative Conference, a non-partisan, statewide policy and business forum that for 54 years has been held in New Braunfels, Duke's hometown since 1975.

"It is very special to me to be honored as the Texan of the Year," said Duke. "We sort of adopted Texas as our home. Starting my career as an astronaut here in Texas was very, very special."

The honor for the 84-year-old retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General was announced on Tuesday (Dec. 3) at Space Center Houston, the visitor center for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas.

"It is really great that you are being honored with this award. I think it is a great reflection not only the historic achievement that you have accomplished, but the person you have been," said Mark Geyer, Johnson Space Center director, while addressing Duke on Tuesday.

"General Duke is a pioneer, who embodies the spirit of ingenuity and discovery," said William Harris, president and CEO of Space Center Houston. "He continues to be an inspiration to future generations as we move forward in pursuit of new ideas and advancements in human space exploration to further humanity with NASA's plans to send humans to the moon and Mars."

Duke first arrived in Texas in 1966 with the 18 other members of NASA's fifth group of astronauts. A native of South Carolina, Duke resided in the Houston suburb of El Lago for more than a decade as he worked at the Manned Spacecraft Center (today, Johnson Space Center), training for the moon and serving in Mission Control as the capsule communicator, or capcom, during the Apollo 11 first lunar landing.

"Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot," radioed Duke on July 20, 1969, responding to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's touchdown at Tranquility Base.

Three years later, on April 16, 1972, Duke lifted off as lunar module pilot on Apollo 16, the fifth and penultimate mission to land astronauts on the moon. Over the course of three excursions, Duke and John Young explored the lunar highlands, covering almost 17 miles (27 kilometers) by foot and lunar rover.

The Apollo 16 mission extended 11 days, including nearly 72 hours on the moon.

In December 1975, two and a half years after he splashed down, Duke left NASA and the Air Force. He and his wife Dotty moved to New Braunfels, just outside of San Antonio, where they live today.

"Growing up, I never thought I would leave South Carolina, but here we are and now we have been living in Texas longer than we have lived anywhere else in our lives. We've taken roots here," said Duke in an interview with collectSPACE.

As the 2020 Texan of the Year, Duke joins former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, former first lady Lady Bird Johnson, former Texas governor William P. Hobby and an array of U.S. senators, entertainers and business icons who have been similarly honored since 1974. Duke is the first astronaut to be named Texan of the Year.

"Some of the past recipients have been certainly world famous, like music legend George Strait and last year, Lamar Smith, our retiring congressman in our district. So when I was told I had been selected this year, it was sort of, 'Are you sure?'" joked Duke.

"General Duke is one of a mere dozen humans to have ever walked on the surface of the moon and looked back toward Earth. His perspectives are unique and his efforts have paved the way for tremendous advancements in science and technology that we all enjoy today," said E. Ray Covey, manager of economic development and government affairs at American Electric Power (AEP) of Texas and chair of the Texas Legislative Conference.

Texan of the Year is the latest honor for Duke, who was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 1973, the International Space Hall of Fame in 1983 and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1997. He was enshrined in the Texas Science Hall of Fame in 2000 and inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame this past September.

Duke will be celebrated as the 2020 Texan of the Year during the Texas Legislative Conference on March 26-27 at the New Braunfels Civic Convention Center.


Apollo 16 moonwalker Charles Duke speaks at Space Center Houston on Dec. 3, 2019, after his being named Texan of the Year by the Texas Legislative Conference. (New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce/Jenna Vinson)

Apollo 16 lunar module pilot Charles Duke salutes the American flag while standing on the moon in April 1972. (NASA)

2020 Texan of the Year and Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke (at right) with his wife Dotty and E. Ray Covey, chair of the Texas Legislative Conference, at Space Center Houston on Dec. 3. (cS)

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