Space shuttle Discovery is on something of a sentimental journey: its last flight ever into space. To mark the occasion, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds team is here to salute it, and take part in the nearby Cocoa Beach Air Show.
But before all that, they are giving a one-hour flight in one of their F-16 fighter jets to a total newbie: me.
"You are absolutely going to love it," says Kristin Hubbard, an Air Force Captain, four-year veteran of the Thunderbirds squad and my designated pilot.
I wasn't so sure at first about the "love it" part. The alarm rings at 4:30 a.m. and we report at Patrick Air Force Base, about 30 miles south of the space center, at 5:45. In the predawn darkness, the Florida air is heavy with the smell of the nearby Atlantic.
In a cinderblock operations building, I'm given a flight suit, parachute harness, helmet, oxygen mask -- and detailed briefings on what to do about throwing up. A ground crew member lets on, ever so casually, that about half of those who go on Thunderbird flights get sick in the cockpit.
Two days before the flight, I got an e-mail from the Air Force: "Starting 24 hours prior to your flight, hydrate. Drink water until you're silly -- and then drink another bottle. Hydration combats motion sickness, so this step is key."
Capt. Hubbard sits down with me and talks me though the flight plan. Since it's a clear morning, we have clearance to buzz pad 39A, where the shuttle sits, at a minimum altitude of 1,000 feet. She tells me how to arm my ejection seat (a lever on my left), get pure oxygen (a small toggle switch on my right), and how to blow us both out of the cockpit if we're about to crash.
For the first time, I'm a bit nervous. But Hubbard, an engaging Seattle native who first flew when she was 17, assures me we'll be fine.
We head out to the flight line, where eight bright white jets wait in a row, perfectly aligned. We'll fly Thunderbird No. 8. Perhaps it is inevitable that Hubbard's radio call sign is "Mother."
There's an old joke about fighter planes: You don't get into one, you put it on. Everything is tight. The parachute harness forces me to stoop slightly. The helmet is so snug that I cannot hear until I'm plugged into the plane's communications system. The oxygen mask hurts the bridge of my nose.
There's a little white airsickness bag strapped to my knee; I've been asked politely not to vomit into my mask. When the clear canopy closes over us, my head brushes against it. I'm in the rear seat; Hubbard is in front of me, mostly blocked by the back of her ejection seat.
And we're off. Takeoff is gentler than in a commercial jetliner, until Hubbard pulls back on the stick and we shoot straight up into the sky. A needle on the control panel shows that we're being pushed into our seats at six times the force of gravity.
"Look, back, look back, Ned," Hubbard calls.
I do, and I see the horizon as a vertical line, with the ground behind us.
A second passes. I look up, and now the ground is above us. We make a loop and then roll quickly around. It makes no sense, but it's actually not disorienting. "Down," to me, is still toward the floor of the plane, although when I lift my arms, it's like working with barbells.
We level off and turn north toward Cape Canaveral. "So what do you think of the F-16?" she asks.