When Typhoid (Briefly) Struck Apollo 16

Charles Duke in a light-hearted moment during Apollo 16. Credit: NASA

Astronaut pranks are, well, just a part of the job. Often they poke at a sore spot in the astronaut’s history, and Charles Duke found himself the subject of a particularly painful one in the 1970s.

Duke was in the final moments of preparations before climbing into the Apollo 16 spacecraft, which was exploring the Moon in this week in 1972. It was a serious moment as Duke and his crew were about to rocket off to the moon. Then Duke got a surprise, courtesy of backup commander Fred Haise, as Duke recalled in an interview with NASA in 1999.

We were up climbing into the command module on the launch pad, and [launch pad leader] Guenter Wendt and the team were up there. And so John gets in, and I’m the next in on the right side. And as I start to climb in, I reach in and I look over and taped to the back of my seat was a big thing, “Typhoid Mary suit—seat.” So, we had a … laugh over that. Yeah, Fred would never let me forget that.

Typhoid Mary referred to Mary Mallon, a cook who was put under quarantine for the latter half of her life in the 1900s — against her stringent objections. She was accused of passing along typhoid to several families for which she did cooking, even though she didn’t show any symptoms herself. At the time, typhoid had no cure. Her curious story has been the subject of a PBS show and numerous books.

The joke on Duke hearkened back to the ill-fated Apollo 13 two years before, when Duke’s son caught the German measles. Duke fell ill and unwittingly exposed several astronauts during his contagion period — including the upcoming Apollo 13 prime crew of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Ken Mattingly.

Of the three crew members, Mattingly had not been exposed to the German measles. This led to Mattingly being yanked from the mission days before launch. Adding to the drama, Apollo 13 suffered an explosion in space that crippled the spacecraft and, without the extraordinary efforts of the astronauts and Mission Control, could have killed the crew.

Anyway, Apollo 13 came back safely, and in 1972 lessons had been learned from the mission. Haise, to his credit, wasn’t afraid to poke a little fun at the early havoc Duke’s illness wreaked on his crew.

What are your favorite astronaut pranks?