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Prepping for the Queen Tests the Commoners

The right look . . . The right greeting . . . The right tone and atmosphere . . . It's all such an obsession that the U.S. State Department has appointed someone to work with Bridge on royal protocol. Buckingham Palace flew in about 15 others -- including the queen's personal assistant and Buckingham Palace's deputy master of the household -- for consultations.

To further her aristocratic knowledge base, Bridge has immersed herself in "Windsor Castle: A Royal Year," a PBS documentary with such stunning details as: The queen's dining table is such a vast expanse that simply setting the table requires a servant to don special socks, climb aboard and skate the candlesticks and centerpieces toward the middle.

"That's been a little intimidating to watch," says Bridge. The governor's dining table can seat a prodigious 28. But compared with the castle's capacities? "Well," Bridge says modestly, "ours is nothing."

The royals are coming to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, and the rest of their visit will "celebrate the exploration of new frontiers -- to push the boundaries of our worlds and knowledge. A common spirit from the settlers of 1607 to the astronauts of 2007," as one of the queen's spokesmen describes it. She'll make a detour, midtrip, to Kentucky and pop into the Derby. No word on whether she'll explore any new frontiers by betting the ponies: "I couldn't possibly speculate as to whether Her Majesty will have a flutter at the big race," says a not-to-be-named, and somewhat horrified, spokesman.

Apparently, Buckingham Palace isn't so different from official Washington -- all the spokespeople insist on anonymity, though their royal reasons sound more gracious than Capitol Hill's. Palace protocol requires that spokespeople remain unnamed because "our stars don't rise higher than those we speak on behalf of."

Next Tuesday, after a dinner with President Bush and the first lady at the British ambassador's house, the queen will board her Boeing 777 for a red-eye flight.

Just don't call it that.

"It's not a scheduled" -- pronounced shed uled -- "flight," one of the nameless spokesmen says, sounding as though only flights with (shudder) coach class can be called a name that reeks of the hoi polloi.

So, it's not a red-eye because the queen has her own bed -- queen-size? -- aboard and will arrive home rested, refreshed and oblivious to the very existence of jet-lag?

Sputter . . . then silence. Such details are kept absolutely private, he finally says. And the subject is demurely changed.

Over at Goddard, they're all about engineering, not etiquette. This is, after all, where a team of Hubble Space Telescope astronauts is preparing for next year's repair mission, and one of Goddard's physicists, John C. Mather, shared last year's Nobel Prize for proving the big-bang theory.

So while others fret about hats and dresses and tea service and polished silver, Goddard is mostly worried about ensuring that the queen and prince "don't trip over extension cords stretched across the aisle," says Mark Hess, chief of public affairs.

The royals will be, after all, spending a couple of hours at a place whose purpose is "plumbing the mysteries of the universe -- looking back to understanding how we came to be what we are," Hess continues. "We're all stellar material: How did we get here? And what's the ultimate fate of it all?"

Questions fit for a queen.

Staff writer Tim Craig and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.


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