Almost a half century ago, General Charlie Duke prepared for his Apollo 16 moon landing here in Flagstaff. Now, locals are awaiting his return as the keynote speaker for this year’s Flagstaff Festival of Science.
The Flagstaff Festival of Science is an annual festival that celebrates Flagstaff’s STEM community and encourages everyone to be engaged with science. Lowell Observatory historian Kevin Schindler has been part of the festival for over 10 years. Schindler has a passion for science, and loves that he can share that passion with others during the festival.
“The [festival] is one of the oldest festivals of science in the western hemisphere,” Schindler said. “It all started in 1990 when a group of scientists and educators got together and said, ‘You know, we have this great scientific heritage here, and there are festivals celebrating beer and arts and music and everything else. How about we have a science festival?’ It started as a three-day event highlighted with a keynote speaker, and then it soon turned into the 10-day event it is today.”
Schindler said the Flagstaff Festival of Science is a signature event for Flagstaff. Master teacher at Lowell Observatory Ted Gonzales agrees. Gonzales said the festival is the best way to engage the younger generation in science, because they are the ones who will carry on Flagstaff’s legacy of innovation and discovery.
“Basically, [the festival] is to show youth and the public that science is fun and that science is for everyone,” Gonzales said. “Bringing science to the kids, bringing science to the public, making science accessible — that’s why it’s important. Flagstaff is a very big STEM city, and science isn’t just for scientists or engineers — it can be for everyone.”
Bonnie Stevens, the event coordinator for the Flagstaff Festival of Science, said the festival is celebrating its 13th year, but will also celebrate Flagstaff's Lunar Legacy. It commemorates the dedication of everyone involved in the Apollo moon landings, including Flagstaff’s very own community members. Stevens said while the Flagstaff Festival of Science is a great way to involve the community in STEM, it also demonstrates how intertwined science is with the city’s history.
“I was around when the festival was just coming together, and it seemed like such a great idea to be able to showcase some of the world-class science that goes on in Flagstaff,” Stevens said.
What’s being showcased this year is monumental – Flagstaff’s legacy in the Apollo missions. Alongside the Lunar Legacy celebration that will encapsulate this year’s festival, American astronaut Duke will be presenting the keynote speech.
“We’re so honored to be able to draw from greatness in the Flagstaff community,” Stevens said. “The keynote presentation sets the tone for the whole 10 days of the festival, and this year, it just couldn’t be a better match than having General Charlie Duke.”
Keynote speakers tend to be high-profile scientists, explorers and innovators. While Duke will be the third moon walker to be a keynote speaker for the festival, Schindler said his involvement is extraordinary. Twelve people have walked on the moon, and only four are still alive today, including Duke.
Stevens said she and the rest of Flagstaff are simply “over the moon” to have him back in town. Scientists and historians are urging the community to participate in the festival and to listen to Duke’s keynote speech, as it will be an exciting moment for Flagstaff’s history.
“You have to go see General Charlie Duke talk, because as one of the last moon walkers alive today, it’s important we carry on that legacy as Flagstaff residents,” Gonzales said. “Whether we’re all students just here temporarily or we’re part of northern Arizona, it’s important we carry on the experience he’s going to share with us, even if you’re not a science major. If you’re an art major, it’s still so important to know that experience of going to the moon.”
Gonzales said it is important to recognize the bravery and determination it took Duke and other moon walkers to achieve what they have.
“They inspired humanity to be explorers, and to use science, math and engineering to push us forward and not be afraid to take those leaps,” Gonzales said.
Duke is one of Schindler’s role models because of his involvement in our national effort to get to the moon, and because Duke demonstrates that if we put our mind to something, it is achievable.
“Charlie Duke and those guys were the ones who sat on top of that explosive device — a rocket as high as a football field is long — and put their lives on the line for their country and for the quest of knowledge,” Schindler said.
While Duke was not the first man on the moon, he was the youngest man to walk the moon’s surface, and Schindler said his involvement in researching the moon was as crucial as that of Neil Armstrong’s, Buzz Aldrin’s and Michael Collins’.
“We had to go to the moon, not just that one time, but several times to learn more about that body,” Schindler said. “If we had gone to the moon just that one time, the science we’d have learned of it would have been so much less.”
Stevens said Duke’s accomplishments are mighty, and the pride Flagstaff has in Duke is double the pride the rest of the nation has in him because of his involvement within the community during his training.
“Even though we may not have been here, it’s still something we all take really great pride in,” Schindler said. “It’s part of the heritage of northern Arizona.”
Duke and fellow American astronaut John Young named a crater they visited on the moon Flag Crater after Flagstaff. Gonzales said that especially showed how much Duke enjoyed his training here, and Flagstaff played an astounding role in all the Apollo missions through mapping missions at Lowell Observatory and training in nearby crater fields.
“To have [Duke] in Flagstaff represents everything that makes Flagstaff special,” Gonzales said. “It’s not just astronomy, it’s all the sciences and the drive to figure out the universe that I feel resonates so greatly with Flagstaff.”
Flagstaff is a large contributor to the Apollo missions’ success, and Stevens said the community should be brimming with pride about the city’s innovation and status for incredible discoveries.
“Every [Apollo] astronaut who has walked on the moon has walked in Flagstaff first,” Stevens said.
Scientists said they are proud to be part of a community with such strong ties to great movements in science, including the Apollo missions. Duke and Flagstaff’s involvement in the Apollo missions demonstrated the drive to understand the unknown, a drive central to the human experience.
“The big question for humans is, ‘Where is our place in the universe?’ And we learn a little bit more the further we step outside our doorstep,” Gonzales said. “It’s important to know what humans are capable of, because we get to know ourselves better, and I think it’s important for humans to continue pushing our boundaries and continue questioning about the universe.”
Schindler said he hopes Duke’s presence at the festival reminds people to be more conscious and curious about their surroundings.
“We’re human, we explore, we like to look into the unknown,” Schindler said. “But in this world, sometimes we get caught up. You walk down the street and everybody’s on their cell phone, but sometimes you just have to step back, look and reengage with that awe and wonder that’s part of us as humans. Having somebody like Charlie Duke here and the entire festival of science, that’s the whole goal of all that – to really take a minute and think about your place in the universe.”
The Flagstaff Festival of Science invites the public to tap into their universal awe at Duke’s keynote speech Sept. 20 in NAU’s Ardrey Auditorium at 7 p.m., or to watch the live stream of the event on the Festival of Science website. The festival will continue until Sept. 30 and will host over 100 free events and activities for all ages in various facets of Flagstaff science.