'Wonder, awe, excitement': Apollo 16 astronaut describes walking on the Moon

Charles Duke watched from Mission Control in Houston when his fellow NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic Moon landing on July 20, 1969. Less than three years later he followed in their footsteps as the Apollo 16 lunar module pilot.

The module carrying Duke and Apollo 16 Commander John Young reached the lunar surface on April 20, 1972. At 36 years and 201 days old, Duke became the youngest person to walk on the Moon and the tenth to reach Earth’s natural satellite.

Duke had been the CapCom (capsule communicator) for Apollo 11, serving as the link between NASA flight controllers in Houston and Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins in the Apollo 11 spacecraft when they traveled to the Moon.

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Finally seeing the lunar surface up close was incredible, Duke told Fox News, during a New York City event hosted by lens maker Zeiss on Friday.

A portrait of Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke. (NASA)

A portrait of Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke. (NASA)

“In flight, you get the dynamics, you get the visual cues, you get the wonder of what you’re doing,” he said. “But, of course, actually stepping on and walking on the Moon was a lot more exciting than Mission Control because of the visuals, the visual stimulation that you get. Your ‘wonder, awe, excitement’ – all of these emotions and all just rolled into one.”

“Probably the most dynamic part of the mission was the landing,” he added. “You’re coming into an area that you have never seen before and there are a lot of features on the lunar surface that were visible, visually, when you came in, but we hadn’t seen in our photographs.”

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Apollo 16 was the only NASA mission to target the “lunar highlands,” an area in the Moon’s southeast quadrant with hilly and grooved terrain, according to the space agency.

Duke examines the surface of a large lunar boulder during the Apollo 16 mission. (NASA)

Duke examines the surface of a large lunar boulder during the Apollo 16 mission. (NASA)

The Apollo 16 lunar module spent 71 hours, 2 minutes and 13 seconds on the surface of the Moon. During their visit, Duke and Young explored the region in a Lunar Roving Vehicle, conducted science experiments and collected rock samples.

The pair became part of a very exclusive group - only 12 people have walked on the Moon.

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Duke told Fox News that he was humbled to be chosen as an astronaut. The Air Force pilot was one of 19 pilots selected in April 1966 as part of NASA’s fifth group of astronauts.

Charles Duke was the tenth person to walk on the Moon. (NASA)

Charles Duke was the tenth person to walk on the Moon. (NASA)

“You were humbled that you got selected and you were honored that you got selected, that the United States is trusting you to fly this multi-million-dollar spacecraft and do a job and bring back some science knowledge and information,” he told Fox News.

Earth’s natural satellite continues to be a source of fascination.

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There have been some high-profile unmanned lunar missions in recent months.

Apollo 16 lifts off from Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center on April 16, 1972,

Apollo 16 lifts off from Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center on April 16, 1972, (NASA)

China, for example, recently became the first country to successfully land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon.

Israel’s unmanned Beresheet spacecraft was recently launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a historic mission to the Moon. Beresheet, which is the Hebrew word for “beginning,” is expected to land on the lunar surface on April 11. The spacecraft also will be the first private mission to reach the Moon.

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The U.S. also has its sights set on the Moon. President Donald Trump wants U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon as a foundation for future Mars missions and the administration has cited Moon missions as a key element of the 2019 NASA budget.

File photo - Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke responds to a question during a live television interview on Monday, July 20, 2009, at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

File photo - Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke responds to a question during a live television interview on Monday, July 20, 2009, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. (NASA/Paul E. Alers)

In a speech last year, Vice President Mike Pence discussed plans for a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a NASA orbital outpost that will be in the vicinity of the Moon. The chair of the National Space Council described the goal of putting an American on board the Lunar Orbital Platform before the end of 2024. “We’re on the cusp of a new golden age of exploration,” Pence said.

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The U.S. is the only country to place astronauts on the Moon, having done so most recently in December 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission.

July 20, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the famous Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Fox News’ Christopher Carbone and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers