As if space travel isn't cool enough.
The three astronauts living on the International Space Station - one American and two Russians - will receive the mother of cosmic phone calls today when Queen Elizabeth II rings them up during a visit to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
It's the Old Guard meeting the final frontier.
The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, will visit Goddard as part of a six-day U.S. tour scheduled to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. The queen's jaunt to Goddard - the first ever by a foreign head of state since the center's founding in 1959 - serves to underscore a recently renewed partnership between NASA and the British National Space Centre in London, an effort to target collaborative possibilities for space exploration.
PJ Johnston, press secretary for the British Embassy in Washington, said the stop also echoes the broader theme of the queen's U.S. visit: "Exploration, pushing of boundaries, people wanting to explore new worlds, which is typified by the landing here in Jamestown 400 years ago and which has been carried on in that tradition by the people of NASA."
Many of Maryland's political dignitaries, including Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, will be on hand for the day's events. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, Hoyer and Mikulski are scheduled to speak.
Members of Congress have been informally briefed on the strict rules of etiquette governing interaction with the royal family.
For example, the queen is addressed as "Ma'am" (sounds like jam, one memo advises). Hats, perhaps contrary to popular perception, are not mandatory - and not normally worn at functions after 6:30 p.m. (Meanwhile, do they stay put in zero gravity?) Cardin, who says he met the queen during her last state visit in 1991, knows that "you don't extend your hand, you wait until she extends hers."
"I don't want to make a mistake and cause an international incident, so I guess I better be on my best behavior," Cardin said.
The queen and duke - who will have by then been feted in Richmond, Jamestown and Washington and at the fabled Kentucky Derby - are expected to arrive at Goddard about 10 a.m., according to Ed Campion, a NASA spokesman. The center is about 25 miles south of Baltimore.
The duke will head to the building where space satellites and hardware are tested for a demonstration of what it is like to work on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. He will learn how challenging it is to handle the delicate features of the telescope wearing those cumbersome space gloves.
The queen will start the day at Goddard's communications center, where she will participate in a live hookup with the crew aboard the International Space Station. She will be joined there by Michael Foale, a British astronaut who, according to his NASA bio, holds the U.S. record for time spent in space. (NASA indicates that Foale, a veteran of six space flights, has logged more than 374 days, including four space walks totaling 22 hours and 44 minutes.)
Fielding the call will be American astronaut Suni Williams, who has been on board since December 2006 and is scheduled to come home in June, and two Russian crew members, Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and Flight Engineer Oleg Kotov.
About 13,000 people work at Goddard, according to Campion, but about 200 people will attend the main event, which will be held in a campus auditorium. Campion said that within 90 minutes after an e-mail announcement went out inquiring about staff interest in the program, 900 people responded. In total, 2,000 employees expressed an interest in seeing the queen.
Their other opportunity to catch a glimpse of the queen will come as she walks between buildings. The center is not open to the public today, but workers can line up along Goddard's mall to get a look at the monarch, who is making her fourth state visit to this country.
"Everyone's been told, 'Don't try to curtsy or bow; that's not needed,' and most people would do it wrong anyway," Campion said.
At Goddard, the queen will also view the Science on a Sphere exhibit, in which four projectors send video onto a 6-foot-wide white sphere. The effect is almost magical. The project illuminates the Earth's rotations in real time, changes in the globe's ocean temperatures, and the evolution of the seasons, among other views - a space traveler's perspective of the planet.
The queen will also stand by for a tree-planting ceremony. To commemorate her visit, a young dogwood - the state tree of Virginia - will be planted in Goddard's "Rocket Garden." She'll visit briefly with students from four Washington and Maryland schools who will be on site for seminars on earth and space sciences.
NASA TV will carry live the conversation with the space station crew, the formal event and tree-planting ceremony, Campion said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley will not be at Goddard because of a conflict with a previously scheduled bill signing, according to his spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. The governor and first lady Katie Curran O'Malley will attend a black-tie dinner hosted by the queen this evening at the British ambassador's residence on Massachusetts Avenue. About 120 people are expected. Johnston would not provide information about the guest list or menu.
Johnston said only that the queen is "returning the president's hospitality for the previous evening at the White House" where President Bush and first lady Laura Bush held their first white-tie state dinner.
In between the Goddard visit and the dinner, the queen and duke are expected to visit Children's National Medical Center and the National World War II Memorial, where the monarch will lay a wreath and meet with veterans, according to a schedule on the Buckingham Palace Web site.