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Former Apollo astronaut Charles “Charlie” Moss Duke Jr. loves to tell the story about how fellow astronaut Ken Mattingly nearly lost his wedding ring in outer space. The circumstances surrounding how he got it back are so remarkable that the story has attained folklore status in the annals of space exploration.
According to Duke, on the second day of the 11-day Apollo 16 mission to the moon and back, Mattingly, the command module pilot, reported his wedding ring missing. Despite the ship's tight confines and the crew's best efforts, they could not locate the ring.
“It just floated off somewhere, and none of us could find it,” the 81-year-old Duke told Wired magazine in a 2016 interview.
The ring remained elusive until Mattingly's spacewalk on Day 9 — April 25, 1972. Duke said he exited the spacecraft to check on Mattingly when he noticed the wedding ring floating out the hatch door.
Duke tried to grab it, but failed.
The ring would have been lost to the vastness of space, but miraculously bounced off the back of Mattingly's helmet, reversed its course and returned to the vehicle through the hatch. Duke said he was able to secure it shortly thereafter.
Scientifically speaking, the astronauts, the ship and the ring were all flying through space together at 3,000 feet per second, but in the absence of wind resistance, as Duke explained in the Wired interview, things just “move along together.”
While the remarkable recovery was attributed to lucky physics, Mattingly, also 81, has a different recollection of how the wedding ring story went down.
In a 2014 interview with SpaceKate.com, Mattingly bluntly poked a giant hole in Duke's account.
"That's Charlie's story," he said. "I lost it, on Earth."
Mattingly believes the ring slipped off while he was removing his flying gloves.
So much for a lost-and-found story that was truly out of this world...
Credits: Photos by NASA (Public Domain).