5 Fred Noonan
Fred Noonan is the only person who knew for certain what happened to famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart. He knew for a very short time, though, because Noonan was the navigator on that doomed flight which disappeared somewhere over the Pacific in 1937. While Earhart’s fame only grew after her death, Noonan, who had garnered limited acclaim within the flying community while alive, never achieved Earhart’s fame in life or in death, despite playing an equal role in that final, infamous mission.
4 Michael Collins
Without Michael Collins, the world would not know the names Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. As those astronauts took the first steps on the face of the moon, Collins was in lunar orbit, making sure the lunar pioneers would have a spaceship to which they could return. With an impressive blend of humility and pride, Collins wrote later that “this venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.” We hope later generations of Americans will agree and remember this third member of the historic Apollo 11 mission.
3 Tensing Norgay
In recent years, Tensing Norgay has finally begun to get his due respect and recognition, but until he is every bit as celebrated and venerated as Sir Edmund Hillary, history will not be fully just. What did Norgay do alongside the famous Brit? Oh, just make up one half of the two-man team who first reached the summit of Mt. Everest. Today Everest is crowded with scores of climbers, but until that day, May 29, 1953, Everest had been unconquered. We doubt Hillary could have achieved the feat without him.
For decades after her death at the age of 24, Sacagawea was a veritable ghost in the saga of American history. This was an extreme injustice, for she had played an integral part in one of the greatest sagas of exploration ever, the Lewis and Clark Expedition (AKA the Corps of Discovery Expedition). Without the help of this brave young Shoshone woman, and her skills as a guide and interpreter, it is entirely possible that the whole undertaking would have been a failure. Sacagawea began to receive more recognition in the early 20th century, and by the recent turn of the century she finally gained her rightful place among the pantheon of daring explorers.
1 Juan Sebastián Elcano
Ask anyone with at least a passing interest in history who completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, and they will likely answer “Ferdinand Magellan.” Magellan didn’t circumnavigate the world, though: He died in the Philippines, still thousands of miles from a true global circuit. It was Magellan’s second in command, Juan Sebastián Elcano, who saw the expedition through to completion and became the first person to successfully sail around the world, in doing so immediately becoming the first person to be snubbed after sailing all the way around the goddamn world!