I wasn’t born yet when the brave crew of the Apollo 13 (James Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise) returned safely to Earth after a major explosion in space had (for all purposes) destroyed their ship’s life support system. However, I will tell you that thanks a lot to directing ability of Ron Howard I was able, over two-decades later, to share a little bit of the exhilaration and triumph that America must have felt on that day back in April of 1970. However, I’ve heard from those who’ve actually lived through it—who remained glued to their television and radio throughout the ordeal—that no mere two hours of film could ever do justice to the actual intensity of the event. They tell me that for five days “everything” hung in the balance. In the eyes of America those three brave astronauts represented the very best and brightest that our nation had to offer. They embodied not only the epitome of our science and technology but they were the ordained representatives of the American spirit of exploration. So yes, I think they were right—everything did hang in the balance.
I have been thinking about America’s endeavoring nature a lot in the past couple of days. I owe most of that to a brave 16 year old girl named Abby Sunderland. I’m sure that most Character-Quest readers are familiar with Abby because she’s been in the headlines a lot in recent days. Abby is doing something right now that every individual in America should stand up and take notice of—she is conquering the boundaries of possibility and exploration. Against all odds, under tremendous scrutiny and criticism she is endeavoring to become the youngest person to ever circumnavigate the globe alone.
In recent months, Abby and her family have been openly criticized by some authority figures and media outlets. They have been repeatedly told that what she was attempting to do was extremely dangerous, even reckless, and that someone who was barely old enough to drive a car, should not be allowed to go through with it. “There’s no need” one commentator said “for a little girl to put her life in danger for someone’s ego.”
But there IS! I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me personally, watching Abby rise to this challenge is a very testimony to what the Character-Quest is about. It is a testament and fitting tribute to something that has (sadly) all but faded in this age—the American sense of adventure. Abby began training for this trip when she was 13 years old. She’s been taught by seasoned veterans in some of the worst conditions and scenarios imaginable. To quote an Associated Press interview with Abby’s brother Zac “She’s got all the skills she needs to take care of what she has to take care of, she has all the equipment as well,” he said Abby is“prepared and mentally tough”. Zac should know. He currently holds the record for circumnavigating the world solo. He did it at 17.
On June 10th, the day before this article was written all of Abby’s training was put to the ultimate test. While crossing the Indian Ocean Abby found herself suddenly faced the very nightmare scenario that many of her critics had warned her about, a dangerous winter storm. Forty hours from anywhere, her small yacht was hammered by towering 30 foot waves. As time passed the raging sea became more and more violent and actually overturned her several times in the inhumanly frigid waters. Then the unthinkable happened. Satellite communication with Abby was lost and her emergency beacons were fired. Abby was down.
I don’t know how many people were like me… part of it was the daddy in me…but I’m sure a lot of it was the emotional investment that I had in Abby’s mission which I had followed from afar for so long…but I couldn’t quit looking at headlines watching for news. The articles I read described the state-of-the-art-survival equipment she was carrying including a special floatation suit and some sort of uncapsizable life raft—both of which were armed with radio beacons. This made me feel a little better but personally, I have to admit one of the scariest scenarios that I can dream up is being trapped at night in a stormy ocean full of four-story waves that you can’t even see coming! I could only imagine what this brave young girl (who now to even me looked far too young) was obviously having to endure. It was my worst nightmare realized and I’m sure it was hers too. I went to sleep last night praying for Abby and her family, who despite their hopeful exterior must have been terrified inside.
As I write this, I have tears in my eyes. The very first thing I did this morning upon waking was run in here, flip on the computer and check the headlines. I believe that perhaps I felt a little bit like those people who watched and prayed so vehemently for the astronauts aboard Apollo 13. After five long agonizing days the entire country was united in cheer as the capsule safely landed in the pacific with all three astronauts alive and well. By now you all know the same thing that I do and that is that Abby Sunderland was found alive and okay. Her boat has suffered tremendous damage but she is safe. Her quest to be the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe may be in danger but that’s okay. In my mind Abby’s already accomplished a FAR greater feat.
You and I live in a country that was BLESSED and ENDOWED with an innate spirit of exploration. Great men and women in our nation’s past have pushed the limits of imagination in every level of human existence. It is precisely this spirit—this God-given attitude that has made America unarguably the greatest nation that has ever existed on the face of the Earth. There was a time when brave young Americans expanded to the West when critics thought that it was nothing more than a foolhardy and profitless endeavor. But these proud individuals not only endured hardship and challenges but forged a new and more complete concept of freedom. They found new resources and natural treasures and extended the idea of America from sea to shining sea. And there was another time in the mid to late part of the 20th century when America again became united in a singular focus…this time to put men on the moon. In that process, which was expensive and was very dangerous we discovered so much of the modern technology and conveniences that you and I enjoy today. America “finds itself” during the process of overcoming challenges…it always has.
I salute Abby Sunderland for continuing the American legacy of exploration for the same reason I salute those three brave astronauts of the Apollo 13 mission. They remind me…no, they remind us that collectively we ALL have a stake in the spirit of exploration. They strike a familiar chord in us that says perhaps it’s not wise to back down from dreams like sending men to Mars or even beyond. If anything their example teaches us that we are at our BEST when we are reaching for the horizon rather than sitting around nit-picking at each other.
I don’t know what Abby Sunderland will do next. But I bet she won’t lay down after this setback—she won’t give up. If she can’t break this record then she’ll simply find another one and push for it. Why? Because she may be just a little girl in the eyes of some people–but to the rest of us she embodies the very character and values that has made this nation great. With courage and dignity she is bearing the torch of the true American spirit.
Frankly, there’s a LOT we can learn from her!