ST. PETERSBURG — The Admiral Farragut Academy drill team lined the pews of DeSeta Chapel and stood at attention as Brig. Gen. Charles Moss Duke Jr. walked down the aisle.
"You're learning to work as a team here at Farragut, and that's exactly what we had at NASA," said Duke, Farragut alumnus and former moon-walking NASA astronaut, as he spoke to middle and high school Farragut students in the chapel Monday.
The chapel was Duke's first stop on the Farragut campus during Monday's visit. Duke is a retired Air Force Reserve brigadier general. He graduated from Farragut in 1953 as valedictorian.
"I hardly recognize it now," Duke said of the campus, which was an all-boys boarding school when he attended.
Duke went on to earn a bachelor's degree from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1957 and a master's from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964 and graduated from Aerospace Research Pilot School in 1965. NASA selected Duke as an astronaut in 1966. He served as capsule communicator for Apollo 11 in 1969 (the first moon landing) and as lunar module pilot of Apollo 16 in 1972.
"It was a very hard job but a very exciting job," Duke said. Takeoff was the exciting part — he said his heart was racing. Training was the hard part — he spent 500 hours walking around in his space suit. He said the backpack weighed as much as he did. The students in the chapel laughed as Duke showed a film in which he fell over in his space suit on the moon.
"We set the high-jump record and that was it for the moon Olympics," Duke said.
Apollo 16 lasted 11 days. The astronauts came back with nearly 213 pounds of rock and soil samples. Duke said he was not allowed to keep any rocks, but he did donate a moon rock several years ago through NASA to Farragut, which is on display at the school.
"I thought it was amazing that I actually talked to an astronaut," said Kollyne Thomas, 12, a seventh-grader. "I've always been great in science, and this just pushed me more."
Kollyne and several others had been chosen to ask a question at the Science Center of Pinellas County on Sept. 9 when about 15 Pinellas students were connected with the International Space Station. On Monday those students each asked Duke a question. Kollyne asked if Duke was able to communicate with his family during his time in space. He said he was not able to, but he did leave a picture of his family on the moon. He said the picture probably didn't last long because the temperature was about 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sara Graves, 13, and Charissa Lenis, 12, listened for Duke's advice to aspiring astronauts.
He said they should choose a career in science, engineering or medicine and continue to set goals for themselves.
Before Duke spoke to students, he said he wanted to inspire them to "stay focused."
"One of these kids might be going to Mars. Who knows?"