Two men. Two astronauts. Similar in so many ways. Yet there is a gulf that separates them; an incomprehensible chasm.
The chasm was not in their backgrounds. Both were Navy pilots, and both were test pilots (though one had gone back to civilian life by that point in his career.) The chasm was not in their personalities, though they were very different people.
No, I'm talking about the difference between their memorials.
The nation stopped, albeit briefly, to mourn the one. Everyone knew his name and his One Big Fact, and many felt compelled to express themselves. The airwaves were flooded. Politicians sent out press releases. Reporters rattled off key accomplishments from his official bio. People whose jaws never gape as they look to the night sky offered feeble words of remembrance (often expressing something untrue, stupid, or ignorant, like how much they enjoyed him on Dancing With The Stars).
They called him a "quiet hero," or a "reluctant hero", and it is true. They plied him with medals and honors; all truly deserved. And yet…
Just 13 years ago we lost someone just as important. Few noticed. There were some short blurbs on the news. An obscure cable channel ran the mission tapes and some other footage. That was all I could find, and I was consciously looking.
I never met him, but I was very moved the day he died. That day I spoke to many people about him. No one… absolutely no one I spoke to had even the faintest clue who he was.
Near-anonymity was nothing new for him. So much so, that back in the early 1980’s he even did one of those “Do You Know Me?” commercials for American Express.
He was another reluctant hero, focused solely on the job at hand, and not the glory and fame.
His name was Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. He was the commander of Apollo 12, and the third man to walk on the moon. If my own anecdotal experience is any measure, there is at least a 90% chance you’ve never heard of him.
I get it – it's human nature. We tend not to remember who was in third place, let alone fourth or fifth or sixth.
But this wasn't a race, at least not in the traditional sense. Sure, everyone on both sides of the ocean was competing to be first on the moon. The astronauts, being extremely competitive by nature, were anything but immune to the contest.
But a race ultimately ends with one person (or very small team) labeled the best, or the fastest; the others in the race not being to his or her measure. That was not the case with the missions to the moon. Being selected first did not mean Neil Armstrong was the best of the best of the best of the… you get it.
All of the astronauts were brilliant, and incredibly skilled. In those first few astronaut classes, all were top-notch engineers and pilots. Many of them were just as qualified, and could have easily taken Neil's place. In fact, were it not for a crew shift rotation, Pete may very well have been first instead of Neil. Had Gus Grissom not died in the fire of Apollo I, he may very well have been first. Had Alan Shepard’s bout with Meniere’s Disease not taken him off the flight rotation, he may very well have been first. Had Frank Borman stayed with the program after Apollo 8, he may very well have been first. Had the flight development progressed just a little faster, Tom Stafford may have been first. These men, and more, were ready and capable. In fact several, such as Borman and Jim Lovell, had more flight experience.
Don't get me wrong. Neil Armstrong is every bit the hero we love, and deserves every single accolade ever offered him. I just want to make very clear that he was not alone.
And we should not just look to those who missed commanding the first lunar landing by the mere flip of a coin. These men stood on the shoulders of so many others. First, there were those directly involved, such as the other astronauts, the visionaries like Bob Gilruth and Chris Kraft, the engineers, and even the guys who make the tools to make the machines. Then, there were those who came before, such as the nameless test pilots who risked their lives to push the outside of the envelope just a little bit farther.
Too many of these others have passed with little notice. Obviously, I don’t expect my fellow Americans to remember the names of the third assistant fuel maintenance technician, or the firefighters at the pad. It would be absurd to try to remember the names of these countless millions who had a hand in this triumph. I also don’t expect most people to be a space-geek like me, who can rattle off crews and flights the way normal people recite box scores.
So what can we do? Simple: we can learn about the ones who are left, and cherish them for the treasures they are. You could learn the names of the men who walked on the moon. Or, you could learn about the men who waited in orbit, mapping the surface and praying their solitary vigil would be a temporary one.
Or you might start with another quiet, reluctant hero who is still with us: James McDivitt.
Who is he? Jim McDivitt was one of the astronauts who could easily have commanded the first landing. More importantly, he was offered a place in history, and turned it down to do what was best for the mission.
Here's the short version for non-space geeks: The Russians sent an unmanned probe to the moon. This prompted NASA to accelerate their timeline and get a flight into lunar orbit ASAP. The original plan had been to wait until all the pieces (the CSM and LM, collectively called "the stack") could be flown into lunar orbit. The problem was that the LM wasn't ready. So, they modified the plan, and sent just the CSM into lunar orbit on Apollo 8.
Everyone knew the significance of the first flight to the moon; the first flight to travel outside the bonds of Earth’s gravity. (Note to physics geeks: I’m being poetical. Let it go.)
They knew this would make them a worldwide sensation – and it did – until finally eclipsed by the actual lunar landing the next year.
The change in flight plan caused the crew rotation I mentioned earlier. Plus, Frank Borman’s crew would now be flying before McDivitt’s.
I defer to the biographers and documentarians on what happened next (as well as the well-acted scene in HBO's From the Earth to the Moon). Deke Slayton, the head of the astronaut office, offered McDivitt the historic flight. McDivitt turned it down. His crew had more experience with LM-3. When it was time for it to fly, it only made sense that his crew be the ones to make it happen.
He turned down his place in history for the good of the mission. A mission that was an absolutely critical step in the process of getting to the moon. If Apollo 9 had failed, Neil Armstrong would not have been first on the moon. It did not fail, thanks to Jim McDivitt, his crew, and countless others.
Never heard of him? That’s because he wasn’t The First.
Now is your chance. Remember his name. Check out his Wikipedia page. Tell a friend.
If it helps, his official astronaut portrait looks like Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That alone is worth a look, right?
P.S. It’s okay to say "the first man on the moon." It is a shameful, but historical fact that women were expressly forbidden from joining the program. Saying “person” could imply otherwise.