Space Shuttle Discovery, Seen From Air Force Thunderbirds Jet

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"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.

Click here for video from the flight.

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."

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