On January 5, 2011, the ms Amsterdam, of the Holland America Cruise Line, cruised around the world from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Through the Panama Canal she crossed the endless azure Pacific Ocean and stopped at the islands of Bora Bora and Tahiti for our days of swimming at the beautiful beaches in the lagoon. Then we arrived at the ports in New Zealand and Australia. We were in Christchurch, New Zealand ten days before the devastating earthquake struck and later learned that over 200 people were killed.
The ship passed through southeast Asia, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean Sea. The final port was Funchal in Portugal. On April 26, 2011 the cruise ended after 112 days at Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
During the 112 days cruise many activities were provided, including watercolor painting, Tai Chi, writing classes, evening shows, and movies. There were also lectures by resident and guest speakers in a variety of different fields from several countries. Apollo 16 astronaut, Charles Duke, talked about his moon landing. A 30,000-mile bicycle trip from Siberia to London that took three years on one bicycle was shared by Rob Lilwall and was a very interesting topic. “The Sound of Music” and “Dr. Zhivago” were memorable movies, which I enjoyed watching several times.
On February 20, 2011, the ms Amsterdam docked at Sydney Harbor, Australia. The famous white Sydney Opera House was glittering in the late afternoon sunshine. The Sydney Harbor Bridge across from the opera house was another landmark. It took fourteen years to finish the Opera House because of conflicting ideas of architecture and construction problems. Finally they completed a beautiful and stunning shell shaped structure on the Circular Quay, designed by a young architect, Jorn Ulzon. Inside the opera house, the colorful concert hall, restaurants and shops are with dark colors in contrast with the white roofs.
The Sydney Harbor Bridge was completed in 1932 during the depression period. It did boost the economy by hiring laborers and engineers. The bridge design and construction were a masterpiece of engineering triumph. Nicknamed as “the coat hanger”, it has arch-type steel trusses, connecting the north shore and city center. It saved a twelve-mile distance crossing between two points. The chief engineer, Dr. John Bradfield, supervised all aspects of the design and construction over a twenty-year period.
Kwang and I leaned on the rail on the top deck of the ship and admired the magnificent scenery of the bridge on our left and the beautiful opera house on our right. I got coffee from the bar and started to read “The Explorer”. It was a daily news list of activities on the ship. It listed the guest speaker for the next four sea days from Sydney to Hong Kong. He was Brigadier General USAF Ret. Charles Duke, an astronaut with the Apollo 16 moon landing.
While holding the “Explorer” in my left hand, I sipped the lukewarm black coffee without any words to Kwang. We were both quiet for a moment. It seemed that Kwang also read the name Charles Duke”with surprise. With another sip of coffee, my thoughts went back that he was a soccer coach and astronaut in Houston, Texas. I continued, “Yes, he is Charles Duke.” My memories of the soccer field came back to me similar to a big screen cinema.
The young soccer coach ran up and down the field yelling to the players, with his hands on his mouth giving them instructions, even though he knew the players could not hear him.
“Sam, run, run, Sam.”
“John, the ball is coming to you.”
“Tom, watch out for the yellow shirt.”
“Sam, kick it, kick it. That’s the boy,” the coach screamed. Sam made the goal.
“Wow, wow!! Sam, good job. Good job.”
The parents clapped their hands, standing up from the lawn chairs instinctively.
The early evening heat in Texas was still unbearable for the parents, but the players under ten years old did not mind it at all, wiping the running sweat away with their arms or with their jerseys. The Falcon team won two to one over the Vikings. The boys were around the coach and listened carefully to his instructions while they were drinking water or Gatorade. A couple of them poured water on their heads to eliminate the burning heat.
Our three sons and the coach’s two sons were on the Falcon team when we lived in Clearlake Forest, near the NASA Space Center in Houston, Texas for eight years.
Now, on the Amsterdam, Bruce, the ship’s Entertainment Director, introduced Brigadier General USAF Ret. Charles Duke as a guest speaker on moon landing and present and future NASA programs. He would be talking for the next four days at sea with “moon walking” as his topic.
“It is absolutely unbelievable. What an encounter,” I told Kwang and grabbed his arm. “Kwang, Charles Duke was the soccer coach for our sons.”
Kwang was quiet, as usual.
“Remember, Kwang, the astronaut who has a twin brother who was a biologist on the cruise ship?” I continued, “Maybe he will not remember us at all.”
Kwang interrupted, “Of course not.”
During Mr. Duke’s lecture, I pictured the soccer field instead of listening to him. He was up and down in the field, lifting his foot in the air without a soccer ball, pretending to kick it to make a goal. Frequently he made a whistle to get the boys’ attention that echoed in my ear drums clearly.
After his first lecture, he had a moment for a book-signing event for his autobiography, “Moon Walker”. I approached him. “Mr. Duke, our boys were on your soccer team with your sons.” I spoke to him quietly and cautiously, watching the expression on his face while he signed his book for other people.
“Yes, yes. Do you remember I was a coach?” He asked me.
“Yes. Yes, you were.” I was shocked at his memory. I was thrilled that he could remember his soccer team forty years later. I almost jumped to the ceiling. He signed his book for me with his wife Dotty, as follows: “To: Family Koh, as a soccer coach in El Lago, Charles Duke. Son, Tom, now 43, Son, Charles, now 45.” I bought his book and DVD for our children and grandchildren.
In three out of a four parts lecture series, he spoke about his childhood, schooling, finishing with a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the interesting and compelling stories about choosing to be an astronaut among tough competition. With endurance and hard work, he became an astronaut for the Apollo 16 Program and landed on the moon. The fourth part was a question and answer period covering all of his lectures.
He spoke not only on technical aspects of the Apollo programs in layman’s terms, but included some humorous incidents that took place inside of the module under zero gravity, such as candy bars and bananas floating around inside the capsule and sleeping under a chair to avoid floating. The most difficult task was disposal of human discharge. At that time, the device for vacuum suction was not available for the toilet.
He showed the different landing positions on the moon from Apollo 16, Apollo 11 and other Apollo Programs. He also shared his indescribable emotions when he took his first step on the eight-foot high ladder from the module. Once on the surface of the moon, he spoke quietly to himself with compelling feelings, “God, thank you for this opportunity. I am proud of myself and also of working for the American people.” He continued to mumble to himself. Mr. Duke praised several times President John F. Kennedy’s compelling speech, “We want and must send a man to the moon before the turn of the century.”
He showed us pictures of himself bouncing around on the dusty surface of the moon. The Lunar Rover went around the small valleys and plains covering the tiny rocks with sand. Next, he managed to put the American flag on the surface of the moon. He added with a big smile on his wrinkled face, “Since there is no air on the surface of the moon, the flag was not flapping from airflow. When the American people saw it on the TV, the flag seemed to be flying with air. Actually, it was a phenomenon that one astronaut waved the flag.”
The main mission of Apollo 16 was to collect valuable scientific information on the moon. One of the tasks of these assignments was to collect as many rocks as the team possibly could. Under zero gravity, and wearing a layered spacesuit and heavy helmet, it was very difficult to pick up the rocks from the surface. In one instance he fell. Falling and standing up in a heavy spacesuit under zero gravity is another time consuming and challenging task, but luckily he managed well and stood up again without being caught by TV cameras.
The most beautiful, memorable event for him was that he left his family photo of his wife and his two sons on the surface of the moon. He prayed, “Eternal moment for my life and family on the moon and maybe on the planet.” The black picture frame was laid on the lonely surface of the moon. During this eleven day journey, there were a couple of minor problems, such as communication with Houston Space Control Center when returning to earth, but due to luck, or his scientific technical wit, he overcame the problems and reentered the earth’s atmosphere safely.
When he spoke of the future of NASA’s program, his face changed and he could not hide the gloomy and uncertain future fate of the space program at NASA.
“Since the cold war is over, there is no imminent threat between the superpowers to compete in the space program. The NASA programs in the future will be slowing down unless we pursue the landing on Mars. Nobody knows.” Then after a moment, “Maybe research projects on the space and landing on Mars or other planets could be active in the private sector.” Sadly, he concluded the future fate of NASA would not be bright, based on defense budget cuts and the slow economic recovery.
One of the most interesting questions he is frequently asked is, “Did our astronauts really go to the moon and put their feet on the soil of the moon?”
With a quiet smile and holding his two hands behind his back, “I am here on your cruise ship with you.” He gave us more than 100% assurance that he was on the moon. After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Another frustrating comment I get from friends and people around the world is that they think all astronauts are millionaires.” To answer this, he showed us his salary and compensation package with detailed numbers. Considering the tremendous risk of life, and the extremely difficult training under zero gravity, the compensation was a ridiculously nominal amount, like a drop of water in the ocean.
Since he retired from the NASA program in the 1970’s, he has had his own investment and consulting company and is very active as a guest speaker. He is enjoying his life with his wife, Dotty, as a new-born Christian.
He was an unforgettable encounter in my life in beautiful Sydney Harbor, Australia.