Blasted to Mars
I'm at a space exploration conference at Disney World, and the space talks are just around the corner from an International House of Pancakes franchisee gathering. In this kind of situation you have to be constantly vigilant that you don't walk into the wrong meeting. You'd hate to get confused and "break the story" that NASA is about to put a waffle into orbit.
Last night took a bus to EPCOT. EPCOT is Walt Disney's idea of a futuristic community. The acronym stands for something like Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It's not experimental, it's not a prototype, it's not a community, and it feels very much like an epic voyage to the year 1980. But it has its charms, including the fact that you don't keep bumping into Mickey and Goofy and Donald. This is the secular theme park of Disney World. As someone told me last night, it's for people who don't believe in Mickey, or are still unsure if he really exists.
I was among hundreds of people from the space conference who went to EPCOT for what had been described as the Lockheed Martin reception. It had been a long day, and the concept of "the reception" proved alluring. Food, beverage, some casual interviewing, the harvest of unguarded comments from liquored-up sources -- it's a reporter's dream.
So we got off the bus and followed people waving glowing red wands, into a building called Mission: Space, or something to that effect. It struck me as a very odd place to hold a reception. I couldn't see any sign of the bar. There were no spreads of food, no one wandering around with little plates of shrimp and crabcakes. Instead there were just people in lines. Disney employee started talking to us as though we were "training" for a space mission. The guy next to me explained that we are going on a ride. Suddenly there were warnings, telling us to leave if we were subject to motion sickness or became uncomfortable in closed, dark, confined spaces.
It was now apparent that we would not be attending the reception until after we had been blasted into outer space. We shuffled into one room and then another, and finally into these little capsules, where for the sixth or seventh time we were warned that the experience would be extremely unsettling and that anyone who got a little queasy from being strapped down and shaken violently and hurled around should get the hell out of there. But of course no one bailed at this point -- it would have shown a lack of fortitude, and besides, we had to do our part for our country.
We had an instructor, appearing on a video, telling each of us what to do at certain moments in the flight. He happened to be Gary Sinise, who, as you probably know, is an actual actor who has played an astronaut. This is what passes at Disney World for extreme authenticity.
The launch flattened us. Trust me, it's rough pulling 1.5 Gs and rocketing into space when all you wanted was a little chardonnay. We whipped around the moon and went into hypersleep and then woke up near Mars just in time to weave through a meteor storm. I was designated the "Pilot" of the mission and, on cue, pressed my buttons with courage and dash. We made an emergency landing on the red planet, narrowly avoiding instantly obliteration several times as we zoomed through a canyon. Finally the torture device came to a halt -- mercifully we were not required to fly back to Earth -- and we all staggered away, wobbly, and by the time we reached the actual "reception," we were all in the mood for a lovely couple of tablespoons of Pepto-Bismol.
You know it's hard being a journalist. And even harder being a journalist/astronaut.
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