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.
View From Above: Space Shuttle, as Seen From Thunderbirds Jet
"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.
"I want one in my driveway," I answer, only half joking. The ride is surprisingly gentle, and on a glorious Florida morning, we are shooting up the coastline.
A sharp roll to the left -- not so pleasant, but Hubbard's plan is for the best view of the Cape to be on our right, where the plane's single tiny camera is mounted.
I'm frustrated that they wouldn't let me take a bigger camera with me, although I recognize that in a fast-moving plane it could easily become a projectile. Hubbard even told me to leave my wedding ring behind -- never mind that I'm wearing tight, tight gloves.
There, just ahead and to the right, is Launch Complex 39, with Discovery on Pad A and the giant cube-shaped Vehicle Assembly Building three miles away. There is no sense of scale. From the clear bubble of the cockpit, I feel as if I could reach out and pluck the VAB -- the second most voluminous building in the world -- between two fingers.
"It looks like a toy," I say to Hubbard. "But it isn't."
We rise again, then nose over, and I expect to feel as if we're falling, but we don't. Instead ... well, I don't even realize until Hubbard calls to me.
"Zero-G, right there," she says. "Let your arms go."
We're weightless. No more sensation of lifting barbells. For about 20 glorious seconds, my arms float free. I forget that we're moving. It is very, very pleasant, surprisingly so.
But Hubbard is on to the next thing. We pull up again, so violently that my ears close and I cannot hear for a moment. I look up and there's the ground above my head again. We're doing a loop-the-loop, and we've left a long, curving white contrail behind.
What Little White Bag?
To be honest, I've forgotten where the little white bag is and, after all that buildup, I'm surprised that I don't need it. Maybe I was protected by the view. It's nothing like a commercial airliner, where you're lucky to see out through a small side window. The canopy of the plane starts below my ribcage, so I'm seeing everything; the sky, the water, even the land strike me as milky blue as they recede in the distance.
I'll confess I had a wonderful time, but as we return to base I also have my share of questions. The Thunderbirds exist to impress -- reporters like me, people at air shows, probably more than a few politicians -- and they do it magnificently. But they also run up a bill.
I ask and they guess that if nothing else, we burned 600 to 800 gallons of jet fuel on our flight, at about $3 per gallon, to say nothing of the work done by the two-dozen members of the ground crew. It's a pittance compared to the Pentagon's total budget, but it is taxpayers' money. And I remind myself that the same jet, painted drab gray instead of bright white with red and black trim, can be used in war.
After the flight I chat with Lt. Col. Derek Routt, who pilots plane No. 7.
"I think what you're asking is how we justify the Thunderbirds' existence in tough times," he says. "My personal answer to that is, what value do you put on an all-volunteer force? A lot of our mission is to recruit and retain. If we can get kids interested in flying, in defending their country, what's that worth?"
Master Sgt. Pamela Anderson, who helped with arrangements for my flight, chimes in. "To me a lot of it is about the kids," she says. "We'd love to keep them off drugs and all that. But a lot of the places we go, we're reaching out to young people who might otherwise have no hope."
I get to talking with Capt. Hubbard. She says she had never been to Cape Canaveral before, or to New York where I was born, so she has as many questions for me as I do for her. She flies her plane four days a week; the team is away from home 200 days a year.
"To me, it's a calling," she says. "The pay is not that great, so you have to love doing this. And I just love being able to get in that plane and get out there."