"We were driving down NASA Road 1, and traffic was really moving slowly," says Eileen Hawley, a
public-affairs officer at Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Then I realize, darn, we're stuck behind the
Hubble Space Telescope."
Even without a brush with cosmic greatness -- or a mockup of it -- it doesn't take long to realize that
Johnson's neighborhood of Clear Lake is just a tad space-crazy.
On the roof of the McDonald's stands a space man clutching a red carton of French fries. Down the street
there's NASA Nails, and for those mane-mussing microgravity missions, a NASA Hair Center.
"Houston, we have a Quarter Pounder."
At Space Center Houston, a theme-park/museum next door to Johnson, a guy dressed as a furry, purple moon
presses the flesh as kids explore a space toilet and take turns landing a virtual shuttle. I skillfully
crash the shuttle and refuel with a vacuum-packed astronaut ice-cream sandwich. It's sensational: When
the shards of arid, brown foam rain down in my lap, this ice cream actually tinkles.
Though a bit more dignified, a similar air of celestial pep pervades the tightly controlled grounds of
Johnson Space Center. There are, for starters, a lot of fast cars in the parking lots. Inside the
buildings, posters and photographs of astronauts line the walls, and streamers and balloons hang for the
seven-man crew of the Hubble Mission.
The way Johnson people turn serious when they talk about the astronauts, and the pride they take in them,
catches me by surprise. It's not the goofy adoration we normally reserve for celebrities; nor the
slack-jawed reverence we give people who are distressingly smart. It's more personal. Perhaps the risky
nature of the business, and the endless drills for launch disasters, orbit disasters and landing
disasters keeps the possibility of death bright and current.
"They are truly nice guys," people keep telling me. "Especially this crew. Really, really nice guys."
Anyone can land (or crash) a shuttle at Space Center Houston,
adjacent to the
Johnson Space Center.
Still I expected they would have tough nicknames like Buster or Bullet or maybe Volt. But even their
nicknames are nice. Almost cute, even.
Commander Kenneth Bowersox is "Sox." He's built like a wrestler, but his face is calm, and in a busy
room, his eyes cover everything. Steven Hawley, Eileen's husband, is "Doctor Stevie." In the simulator
cockpit, he yuks about "the world's biggest rocking chair," but he's also reaching with an aluminum stick
to knock off each switch about a second before Bowersox says over his shoulder, "Hawley, can you get
Joseph Tanner, or "Joe T," is tall and straight, but his whole body loosens when he laughs. Scott "Doc"
Horowitz, the pilot, has sad-shaped eyes and a near-permanent, gentle smile. Greg Harbaugh wears a
straight face in public, but it's he who calls the shuttle simulator control room and asks trainer Gail
Barnett to tell Bowersox, Hawley and Horowitz, who are suffering in their pinching flight suits and
helmets, that the rest of the crew "feels their pain." And that they're having a grand old time at the
gym, by the way.
"If we ever get out of here, they'll feel our pain," Hawley promises, and the sputter of laughter fills
the headsets. Bowersox proposes punishing Harbaugh, Tanner and the other two Mission Specialists, Steven
Smith and Mark Lee, with extra simulations of their own, but admits they'd probably ignore his orders.
Hawley nods in agreement. "It's amazing, the respect you get from this crew: 'Nah, Sox, I don't think
so.' 'Nope, I'm not doing that.'"
Yes, more Mr. Nice Guy -- astronaut Greg Harbaugh and daughter Madeline
But the next afternoon, at the end of their preflight press conference, there's a spontaneous chain of
elbows around shoulders as the astronauts unhook each other's microphones. It's almost a tear-jerker,
these combed and shined and brainy men who are, although they're about to blast themselves far, far
from home, still thinking of each other.
In fact, I think I'm going to buy them each an ice-cream sandwich.