Of course it closes the show.

What kind of fool wants to follow the man being shot out of the cannon?

So Elvin Bale has the crowd all to himself when he drives out in his car and the sirens whir and the lights flash and the circus master hushes the kids and the lighting technician puts a solitary spot on Bale, who, having checked the trajectory of his rocket, which sits atop the car, and donned his crash helmet, is right now waving to the people and saying, "Goodbye."

He climbs into his missle and waits for the feeling of fear that starts at the base of his spine. The fear always comes and it's always good, he says, because it keeps him on the ball, keeps him from getting careless.

Lying on his stomach at a 40-degree angle pointing northwest, he folds his arms under his chest so nothing gets caught on the way out, and he listens to the countdown.

"Five . . . four . . ."

At "three . . . he tightens his body as much as he can, trying to stiffen his very bones, because if he were loosey-goosey the impact of the boost from the hydraulic launch might crack a vertebra or eight. By "two . . ." he has shoved his neck as far back into his shoulders as possible, and by "one . . ." he is gritting his teeth so tightly that his gums ache.

And then, a half-count after "one . . ." comes "fire! . . ." and the spring mechanism on the rocket sled is sprung for what should be called "The Bale-Out" and Bale is pushed at a speed he estimates at 55 miles per hour and a force he estimates at equal to 18 Gs, and out he comes through the open nose of the rocket hurtling into space toward a net 100 feet down launch. He does a half-spin so he lands on his back, which is the safest way, and quickly -- very quickly, maybe only after 2 1/2 seconds -- it is over, and once again, for what is now the 600th time or so, he has lived to tell about it.

"Fan-tas-tic," he says, stretching out the word almost as long as his flight, smiling wider than the arc he cuts in midair.

"Once you get out, it's just the greatest feeling, the biggest thrill. I'm out there soaring and all I wish is that I could go farther."

Elvin Bale, who is 36 and lives in Venice, Fla., is a fourth-generation circus performer, doing his thing with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show now at the D.C. Armory. At 12 he was doing a tumbling act. At 16 he was working on the trapeze. At 18 he invented the "Heel Catch" in which he dove from the trapeze into space only to catch the thin bar at the last possible second with his heels. Six years ago, already an established circus daredevil, he created the "Wheel of Death." As The Phantom of Balance, he performs acrobatics on a circular wire mesh cage eight feet in diameter suspended on a 40-foot steel arm, running along the inside and outside of the cage -- blindfolded even -- while the wheel moves at speeds up to 60 miles per hour.

Four years ago, searching for something even more spectacular so he could demand a bigger contract, he decided to learn the human cannonball routine. Now, in this Star Wars era, he is billed as the Human Space Shuttle, and the program refers to him as a "brilliant, bombastic blast-off, a startling, streaking solar sojourn . . ." etc.

To fly.

On Tuesday, when astronauts Young and Crippen were still a half-hour away from landing, Bale was asked whether he had any special feeling for them, and before the question was finished he had his answer started. "I wish I was them," he said. "I would love to have been an astronaut."

Surely they are kindred spirits. Surely you'd have to consider him a test pilot of sorts, and surely they are thrill-seekers like him. In "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe wrote about "pushing the outside of the envelope," and Elvin Bale surely does that. "Sometime on the wheel," he said, "I take extra chances just to get the audience going . . . I like to be thought of as a daredevil. That's what I am because I risk my life every day."

He was adjusting the support cables to his wheel as he spoke, and just then he tapped one. "This could break tomorrow and I'll be dead," he said, not so much cavalierly as factually. "Believe me, I've woken up many nights having dreamt that I'm falling, and it hits me and I shoot up in bed, sweating, and I say, 'My God, why am I doing this?' I'll tell you why -- I'm doing this because I make good money at it, and to give it up would destroy me."

It sounded so convincing that a cynic might think it was all part of the act. Bale himself will say that certain things, certain half-slips and near-slips and nearlys and almosts are just to juice up the crowd.

But then, one never knows, do one?

Elvin Bale does it for love and he does it for money. Circus permormers never disclose how much they make, but a good estimate would have Bale making more than 100,000 a year. A man working for factory wages would not be wearing the ring with two diamonds on his right hand that Bale wears.

And on this half of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey tour he is one of the stars. But not The Star. Not the kind of THE STAR that the amazing animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams is on the other half of the tour. And that has always bothered Bale.

"They've pushed Gunther more than me," Bale said. (Interestingly, Bale's wife was once married to Gebel-Williams.) "I probably risk my life more than he does, except when he's working with the tigers and panthers." lBale fingered the cross-like medallion he wears around his neck, the one that says -- The World's Greatest Superstar -- the one he laughs about, saying, "I wear it one week, then send it to Gunther. Then he wears it one week and sends it back to me." Then, Bale gets serious. Almost. "I guess it's because he works with animals. Next time I'm going to be an elephant trainer -- that's the way to get ahead."

And then he gets serious. Really. "I would really like to be famous. I think everybody would. But I don't think I'll ever get it. I've worked hard. I've broken my neck -- not literally -- I've deserved to be famous. But I guess no circus performer ever really gets there. As famous as Gunther is, he's not really FAMOUS. We don't get the respect we should. In Europe we do, but here in America they think of us as gypsies . . . Look, I've played to millions of people, literally millions. And when this shows ends the kids going out of here will remember my name, and they'll call to me, and people recognizing me like that -- that's all I want, that's fantastic, that's better than money."

And then a pause.

And then: "But you go to the concession stands and you won't see any Elvin Bale posters. You'll see posters of Gunther and posters of Lou Jacobs. He's a clown, and he deserves it. But so do I. So do I. And that kind of thing hurts. It still hurts."

The really crazy thing is that it gets harder, not easier, as he goes along.

Not only do the reflexes slow a little each year, but the demands grow. If you're going to be a star daredevil, than, by God, you've got to be daring. You don't get applause just for pushing the envelope anymore. It's as if you have to tear it open.

You almost have to die for them.

"You've hit the nail right on the head," Bale says in the quiet of the arena a few hours before show time. He is shaking his head as he recapitulates the Catch-22 that the daredevil faces. "Sometimes I say to myself, 'My God, you really have to be lying in a pool of blood before they'll believe it. Television has really spoiled the American audience. They're immune to murder and death. They see guys jumping out of a five-story building and walking away and they think it's for real. They don't understand that it's all bull . . . I'm good at my job. fMaybe I'm too good to become famous. Sometimes I think if you don't die out there the audience assumes it can't be dangerous. You have to be really crazy today -- crazy enough to make the audience think you might actually kill yourself."

And Elvin Bale is shrugging. He's quite proud of the fact the he's made it to 36 and stayed in one piece. And he knows that he's done it by playing crazy, but not actually being crazy.

Because if he actually was crazy, chances are somebody else would be flying out of the cannon, sometimes twice a day, making the little kids scream. f