Milestones Sep. 17, 2007

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It says something about your trustworthiness when both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush choose you for a key post. As the longest-serving member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the group that regulates the nuclear industry, Edward McGaffigan earned a reputation as a scholarly analyst who could be blunt and acerbic with critics. Asked whether new plants should be required to withstand rogue-airplane attacks, the Democrat offered, "When they change the law to require absolute assurance of perfect protection, there won't be a lot of nuclear reactors in this country. Also, there won't be a lot of cars or McDonald's." He was 58 and had melanoma.

Few could have lived with the burden of comparison to the King of Rock 'n' Roll. Rockabilly pioneer Janis Martin did. In the mid-1950s, riding the success of Blue Suede Shoes and Heartbreak Hotel, RCA discovered the talented 15-year-old and dubbed her the "female Elvis." Though she privately winced at the moniker, Martin--who preferred the sound of Carl Perkins--lived up to the billing with a booming voice, gyrating hips and appearances on American Bandstand and the Tonight Show. She faded in the late '50s, but her records, including Drugstore Rock 'n' Roll and the Top 40 hit Will You Willyum, paved the way for future female rockers like Brenda Lee. Martin was 67 and had cancer.

He tended to hold his jobs for long, steady tenures. Before Ohio Representative Paul Gillmor was elected to the House in 1988, the reliably conservative Republican served in his state's senate for 22 years, rising to president. After winning by a 27-vote margin in the '88 primary, the former Air Force captain led legislative efforts to enact financial-service reforms and clean up commercially contaminated sites. He was 68 and died of a suspected heart attack.

When critics asked why he bothered to invent an impractical human-powered flight machine, the keenly intellectual aeronautics engineer Paul MacCready, above, insisted that inventing anything--even if impractical--spawned something critically important: a new way of thinking about the world. In August 1977 the curious, free-spirited inventor unveiled his Gossamer Condor, a winged, 70-lb. (about 30 kg) contraption made of piano wire, aluminum tubing and Mylar, which completed the first sustained human-powered flight. "Your parents will be wrong. Your schools will be wrong," he told a group of schoolchildren in 1998. "If you look for the answers yourself, you will find that you can do better." He was 81.

Remember when everyone bought coffee in a can? We don't either, which is a tribute to the influence of coffee guru Alfred Peet. Opening his Berkeley, Calif., coffeehouse in 1966 and insisting on dark-roasting a variety of strong beans, the Dutch-born son of a coffee merchant single-handedly started the U.S. gourmet-coffee revolution. Peet, whose original café still thrives in Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto," went on to train the founders of Starbucks, for whom he initially supplied coffee beans. Thus he is known as the "grandfather of specialty coffee." Peet was 87.

Military officers are not generally made for the limelight. But in 1970 lifelong Army officer Elizabeth Hoisington became an all-out celebrity--and a p.r. gem for General William Westmoreland, who was shown kissing her in newspapers across the country--when she and Anna Mae Hays became the first two women to attain the rank of brigadier general. Before that achievement, she ran the female military arm, abolished in 1978. During her tenure, women's positions, once largely secretarial, expanded to include jobs in air-traffic control and intelligence. She was 88.

MISSING There have been many perils Steve Fossett has handled fearlessly--plummeting 29,000 ft. (9 km) into the ocean in a hot-air balloon or realizing while flying solo that his fuel tanks were leaking. But with a "low threshold" for boredom, he pushed himself to a series of exploratory feats, most famously becoming the first person to fly around the world alone in a hot-air balloon, in 2002. "I don't like to be scared," he said. "I spend a lot of effort figuring out how to reduce risks." It is unclear whether such effort was enough to sustain Fossett, 63, who took off in a single-engine plane on Sept. 3 in search of a Nevada location for his planned next feat: breaking the 763-m.p.h. (1,228 km/h) land-speed record. Two days later, search-and-rescue efforts had yet to locate him.