Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ordinary Supermen . . .

The year is 1966. Veteran astronaut Jim Lovell, who had previously flown in the endurance mission of Gemini 7 with Frank Borman, is paired up with Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin for the final flight of the Gemini program, Gemini 12. This is Aldrin's first flight, and it's a doozy: they will have to dock with an unmanned Agena spacecraft to prove that orbital docking of two spacecraft is possible. Without a successful mission, Apollo, waiting in the wings, becomes uncertain, as does the possibility of making it to the moon. So, on November 11th, facing problems with their radar and relying heavily on visual sighting of the Agena, Lovell and Aldrin pave the way for Apollo and accomplish their mission objectives: all in a day's work for the astronauts, but groundbreaking for manned spaceflight. They did not see this in terms of historical significance; this was just what they were called to do. Gemini 12 splashed down in the Atlantic on November 15th, and the Gemini program was over. The astronauts shook hands, and wondered what was next for each of them: would either of them be amoung the first men to go to the moon? It would be years before they would find that out, but for that moment in 1966, all was well in the world.
Aldrin and Lovell onboard the Wasp carrier after recovery, November 1966
Each man, as it turned out, would have a further role to play in NASA's, and indeed humanity's, history: Three years later, Buzz Aldrin, LMP for Apollo 11, became the second man to set foot on the moon; Lovell, CMDR Apollo 13, survived the first disaster in space when an oxygen tank in his service module exploded and he and his crew had to fight to make it home alive. Lovell watched Aldrin take his first steps on the moon from his home in Houston, and Aldrin watched and listened to Lovell struggle to make it home just two years later from the same place. Neither saw the other as heroes, nor did they see themselves that way; they were coworkers and friends lucky enough to take part in one of humanity's greatest adventures.
Buzz Aldrin (left) and Jim Lovell (right)

This evening, the Adler Planetarium of Chicago is sponsoring an event to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, and Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell will be speaking at Northwestern University's Thorne Auditorium. I was lucky enough to get a ticket, and it promises to be a rare experience indeed: two men bound by common and extraordinary experiences, speaking humbly about their reminiscences of one of the most incredible periods of human history. Ordinary Supermen. If I get to shake their hands, I may never recover.

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