Sunday, November 14, 2010

A salute to some unsung heroes.

"Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me."

-Commander Charles "Pete" Conrad, Mission Commander for Apollo 12, upon stepping onto the surface of the Moon.

Forty-one years ago today, November 14, 1969, Apollo 12 embarked on the second manned expedition to the lunar surface. Only four months previously, arguably the most profound human endeavor of the twentieth century materialized as Neil Armstrong remarked, "That's one small step for giant leap for mankind."

We never seem to remember or acknowledge outstanding achievements unless they are the first of their kind. I can rattle off in my sleep each astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission (Armstrong, Eugene "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins—okay, I was a space geek), but I had to look up all three names for the Apollo 12. They were Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon, Jr. and Alan Bean, pictured above.

These men were engineers, mathematicians, athletes and pilots, but most of all they were master improvisors. I wasn't aware that Apollo 12's Saturn V rocket was struck by lightening—twice—immediately after lift-off, and that the mission was nearly aborted but for the quick thinking of Bean, the Lunar Module pilot. As nearly every warning light in the cockpit flashed, he quickly switched the craft to its auxiliary fuel cells and restored telemetry to the main cells, thereby ensuring that the launch continued successfully. Scotty's got nothing on that man.

At the end of the mission, Apollo 12's objectives had been met, including a far more precise Moon landing than its predecessor had achieved, and it splashed down in the South Pacific with far less fanfare.

Apollo 12 was a little like that second or third kid who's born into the family. She doesn't get as many pictures taken of her, she wears a lot of hand-me-downs—she flies under the radar. Maybe its because I'm a third kid that I'm writing this post, paying tribute to an historic feat in its own rite, one that deserves its own place in the spotlight.

So here's to all of those people who weren't the first, but were highly inspirational nonetheless. How about Larry Doby, the the second African American Major League Baseball Player after Jackie Robinson, who had to suffer the same indignities that Robinson did, and with nowhere near the media attention and implicit support.

Our what about the Buffalo Bills, who made it to four consecutive Super Bowls? Many will remember them as the most notorious losers of the NFL Championship until we consider that the were NFC champions an amazing four years in a row.

There are so many more—the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode on Dallas, which was the second highest rated television show of all time (next to the final episode of M*A*S*H), the fact that Jack Nicklaus finished second nineteen times in major golf championships, or that Susan Lucci was passed over for a Daytime Emmy Award a record eighteen times before she finally won one. We Americans seem to be all about who gets the gold. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, "The Silver Medal just means you're the best of the losers." How about we try to shake this attitude once and for all?

And by the way, this has nothing to do with the fact that my teenager beat me in a game of H-O-R-S-E this morning.

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