I'm embarrassed to admit that, until yesterday, I knew little else about Steve Fossett than his name. But the flood of articles and concern that have accompanied his disappearance testify to his prominence in the American mind -- and looking at his life, it's not hard to see why. Fossett is a manifestation of the American dream: he struck it rich and then used his wealth to support adventures that recall the devil-may-care gallantry of a century ago, when technological advances sent pilots at then-superhuman speeds across oceans and skies and horizons that still seemed vast and mysterious.
When Fossett's plane went down, he was scouting possible sites for the pursuit of a world land-speed record. The locale and the quest recall another mogul-turned-adventurer, Howard Hughes, and the outpouring of support echoes some of the sentiments described in The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's account of the Mercury astronauts: an ancient, transcendent adulation for the warrior who goes into single combat as a representative of his people, and in the modern age is a daredevil or explorer rather than a fighter.
In a sense it seems strange to emphasize Fosset's plight in a world full of suffering, but in another sense it's a profoundly human impulse, for he's at once a person and a symbol of our eternal quest to push the envelope of speed and time. Good luck, Steve.