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Queen evokes gravity at NASA

GREENBELT — GREENBELT -- Even in a breakaway ex-colony, the queen of England drew thousands to the barricades to gawk and cheer and wave the Union Jack.

She stopped traffic with her long black motorcade and moved inside a bubble of efficient black-suited security men.

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But not even the queen could alter the laws of orbital mechanics.

That's why longtime managers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center began planning more than a month ago for Queen Elizabeth II's visit yesterday - and for a royal conversation with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

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They realized they would have to script her arrival at Goddard's communications nerve center literally to the minute and wrap up her chat with the astronauts before an anticipated communications blackout.

In all, they would have 11 minutes to greet the queen, run the show and end it as gracefully as possible. Not just any 11 minutes, either. They had just one chance to get it right.

Besides all that, they had to be sure Goddard's Network Integration Center (NIC) looked spiffy enough for a queen - and that employees dressed properly and knew how to field an impromptu query from a monarch.

"People do stay up late worrying about these things," said Bruce Schneck, 54, who has worked 37 years at Goddard for Honeywell Technical Solutions as manager of mission operations at NIC.

Happily for NASA, it seemed to come off without a hitch. The NIC visit was only the kickoff to a long day for the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Before the sun set, one or the other - or both - would greet Goddard staff, visit a science education workshop at Goddard organized by staff from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, plant two trees, and visit the Children's National Medical Center and the World War II Memorial in Washington.

The queen's visit drew to a close last night when she hosted President Bush and first lady Laura Bush at the British Embassy for an elaborate "return dinner." The black-tie event was a shade less formal than the festivities at the White House state dinner the night before, but still heavy with protocol.

In addition to the Bush family, guests included Gov. Martin O'Malley and his wife, Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley. The governor and the president exchanged a few words.

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The queen began her remarks last night playfully: "I wondered whether I should start this toast by saying, 'When I was here in 1776,'" a reference to a much-publicized flub Bush made a day earlier. After thanking "everyone for the warmth and kindness extended to us" over six days, she praised the president and his predecessors for "your contribution to bringing peace in Northern Ireland." A formal transfer of power to Northern Ireland took place yesterday.

The queen's bicentennial quip was met with laughter and applause, and Bush said, "I can't top that one" when he rose for a toast of his own.

Goddard officials had gotten word of the queen's intended visit early last month and immediately began planning to have her observe - and join in if she chose to - a live conversation with astronauts aboard the ISS.

But despite more than 40 years of advances in communications between Earth and near-Earth orbit, there are times when radio and TV links with the station go dark for a few minutes.

On any normal workday, NASA engineers and their contractors take these in stride. But not when Queen Elizabeth II is on the line. "We would hate for anything to go wrong," said Roger Flaherty, NASA's project manager for the relay satellite network.

As the planning for the May 8 visit moved ahead, Schneck and his team penciled in an 11-minute "window," beginning at 10:15 a.m. and ending at 10:26 a.m., when the ISS would have both voice and video links to Goddard. After 10:26, the video link would be lost.

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Clearly, the control room would have to be first on the queen's list of stops at Goddard. Otherwise, any snag, even a stop to greet Goddard employees along a crowded "rope line," could push the astronauts' audience off the agenda entirely.

Schmooze time with Maryland politicians, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski - a key NASA supporter in Congress - would also have to wait. The voluble pols were stashed in a glassed-in balcony above the control room where the queen would arrive.

And the place had to look right.

The technicians scheduled to work a space shuttle launch simulation during the queen's visit had to put some books away and clean up their work stations, Flaherty said. They were also alerted that the queen might stop and ask one of them what they actually do for NASA.

"Everybody was asked to have a quick-shot response, if asked," he said. Bigwigs also urged their troops to eschew the customary NASA informality and "dress appropriately."

They also worked through two dress rehearsals and a "walk-through" as the big day approached.

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"I think folks are very interested," Flaherty said. "They're excited." They were also promised a copy of a videotape of the queen's NIC visit "for posterity," he said.

As the clocks finally clicked over to 10:15 yesterday, everyone was in place.

Except the queen.

A few more minutes ticked by, precious minutes, with the space station crew bobbing weightlessly in front of a camera as their home in orbit soared high over the Pacific. Faces grew worried.

"It's the orbital mechanics of the spacecraft," Schneck said, his smile draining from his face. "We can't stop it."

Finally, there she was, a perfectly put-together presence in a lime-green hat and coat, moving dutifully up a ramp and across to the center console, where she smiled and extended her gloved hand to NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin and British astronaut Michael Foale.

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No one bowed or curtseyed. She spoke to no one except Griffin and Foale, who - mindful of the fleeting time before communications would be lost - quickly introduced her to the ISS astronauts.

In turn, Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and Flight Engineers Oleg Kotov and Sunita Williams greeted her respectfully. Williams, a U.S. Navy commander and helicopter pilot, drew a royal smile when she welcomed the Queen to their "home."

Responding to Foale's prompts, they tried, in a nutshell, to explain to Her Majesty the purpose and promise of their work aboard the station, plans for its expansion, and its role in preparing astronauts for voyages to the moon and Mars.

The minutes ticked by quickly, and the exchange was ended at 10:26 sharp. The crew signed off, another NASA official addressed the queen, and Foale fielded a few inaudible royal questions.

Later, he said the queen had inquired about how long ISS crewmembers spend on board the station and expressed "surprise" at the answer - usually six months. Foale spent six months there in 2003-2004.

Asked later for the queen's reaction to the visit, Foale replied, "She said, 'It's quite amazing, really, quite an achievement.'"

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And she was gone, headed out amid a swarm of bodyguards for a 15-minute walk in bright sunshine - across the lawn toward an auditorium where she would greet 200 Goddard employees selected by lottery from 1,000 who applied.

Issues of orbital mechanics behind her, the queen strolled, smiling, along a barricade crowded three deep by several thousand Goddard workers who came to glimpse the queen despite having the day off.

Many cheered or waved small British flags. Others seemed star-struck, gaping in awe as the queen passed slowly by. She did not offer her hand, just smiled and nodded. Hundreds held cameras in the air.

Under the gaze of National Capital Park Police on horseback nearby, she accepted roses, carnations and daisies from about 25 pre-schoolers and spoke with a handful of employees, leaving them startled by their brush with royalty.

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

Sun reported David Nitkin contributed to this article.



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