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Charles Duke, other SC astronauts and engineers highlighted at South Carolina State Museum

Charles Duke collecting lunar samples on the Moon at the Descartes landing site - Courtesy of NASA.jpg

South Carolina's Charles Duke on the moon. Provided/SC State Museum/NASA

When Charles Duke was a young boy, he would draw pictures of airplanes and helicopters on his math homework, daydreaming of taking to the skies and exploring the unknown.

Fifty years later, a grown-up Duke became the youngest ever person to step foot on the Moon. The South Carolina State Museum is honoring him and other South Carolinians who helped make space travel possible through its exhibit titled “Apollo 16 & Beyond: South Carolina in Space.”

“I think Apollo 16 is important for us at the museum, especially in South Carolina, because we sent one of our own up into space,” said the Museum’s Public Relations Manager David Dickson. “I don’t think as many people know about Charles Duke outside of South Carolina, or even in South Carolina, compared to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.”

The museum previously housed an exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission beginning in 2019, but the museum’s staff decided to take its most recent space project in a new direction by including information about both the Apollo 16 mission and the achievements made by South Carolinians in other space programs.

The exhibit features video footage and authentic objects from the Apollo 16 mission, including Duke’s helmet and training suits, a lunar rock sample and a replica of the ground rover the astronauts used on Earth in preparation for their journey to space.

Some of the objects displayed in the exhibit are loaned from the Smithsonian, while others come from the museum’s Charles Duke collection, Dickson said.

Other areas of the exhibit focus more generally on the contributions South Carolina scientists, engineers and astronauts have made to NASA missions and aerospace research over many decades and showcases unique memorabilia — one such object is a South Carolina state flag that was brought to space by astronaut Frank Culbertson on the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

“Apollo 16 & Beyond” also has a section dedicated to 22 individuals — like Guion Bluford, the first Black American to travel to space, and Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, two of the Black women featured in the movie “Hidden Figures” — who broke social barriers during their aerospace careers.

Nichter said she saw this section of the exhibit as an opportunity to create something that previously had never been done at the museum.

“Charles Bolden and Robert McNair are from South Carolina, and those are two Black astronauts who had to overcome much different social hurdles than Charles Duke did,” Nichter said. “Because we don’t (have) as many objects for them in the collection, we haven’t done as many focused exhibits on them, but it’s still important to highlight them, so I thought it was a good idea to tie them into the bigger picture of non-white people who have contributed to the space program.”

The museum’s goal is to serve as inspiration for its younger visitors, according to Dickson, and he said he hopes some of them develop a desire to continue Duke’s legacy.

“One of the panels we have says, ‘How do you become an astronaut?,’ because we have many astronauts from South Carolina and it’s like, ‘Well, I doodle on my math homework, maybe I can become an astronaut like Charlie,” Dickson said.


Apollo 16 & Beyond: South Carolina in Space

Ongoing. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tues-Sat. 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Museum membership or general admission. SC State Museum. 301 Gervais St. scmuseum.org.