"Permission to approach pad!"
The kid with the Range Safety Officer hard hat and the walkie-talkie waves briskly, and the other boy advances to a yard-square plate in the middle of a mown field near the high school. Onto a vertical guiding rod he threads a foot-long white rocket--he made it himself, from balsa wood--and steps back to the arming device.
We are a long way away from Challenger and Sally Ride and all the hoopla of the latest space flight . . . but not as far as you might think.
"Permission to launch!"
"Five--four--three--two--one . . ."
And with a pop, a swooooosh and a jet of white smoke, the thing takes off. Straight up. Four hundred feet. Heads tilt back into the sun, hands shade squinting eyes. At precisely 7.19 seconds the rocket peaks, falls, breaks out its small parachute.
"It's deployed!" shouts the leader, 53-year-old Kenneth Beatty.
The crew of National Aerospace Cadet Starship Produs runs pell-mell across the meadow to catch the rocket. This is Crew No. 1, the pioneers of a burgeoning nationwide program that makes the Boy Scouts look distinctly 19th century.
The idea was Beatty's. It's very simple. All he wants is to train America's youth for future careers in space, or at least to point them in that direction.
"We were a bunch of Trekkies, you know, and we went to see 'Star Wars' and learned about how you could send in $5 and get a lot of space stuff. We heard two million people sent in for them. Well, I said the heck with this. Why teach 'em fantasy? Why not the real thing?"
That was in January 1980. Before he knew it, Beatty, who has been in Boy Scouting 30 years and a Scout executive three years, had himself a basement full of computers, space flight simulators, starship models, working robots, films, slides, books and what looks like the command module of "Star Trek," complete to the decks of buttons and switches, the big video screen and the tall-backed leather swivel chair.
Already there are 57 cadets from 11 years up who come into Beatty's basement on weekends to hang out, and a summer camp program for 15 kids. A magazine article drew hundreds of responses from all over the country, and now three other chapters have organized and at least 60 more are in the works.
"Girls, too," said Beatty. "One girl is about 12, she's a Candystriper and wants to be a nurse, and she hopes to go to medical school and become a surgeon and do the first surgical operation in space."
Then there is 19-year-old Kevin Suffecool, whose computer talents earned him a scholarship to Hagerstown Junior College and who soon will move on to college in Pennsylvania.
"I think we should train our young people for the space age," said Beatty, "the way they do in the Soviet Union."
The way he does it looks like fun. There is the 250-pound 6-foot robot they are building with donated materials. With its smoke detector and CO2 gun it will put out fires. With its cattle probe it will protect itself. With a built-in computer and speaker it will answer about 500 questions on space. Its automated arm, by the way, already has been built by a student who entered it in the local science fair.
Another project is the solar cell experiment, an apparatus to measure the best angles and reflecting materials to get maximum power from the cell. This homemade device may be sent up on the space shuttle one of these days, Beatty said.
The cadets design and build their own rockets, are constructing a laser, have planted some hydroponic gardens, and in their space navigation exercises with the Atari, the Apple II and the Odyssey computers, when they run a film of a shuttle takeoff and synchronize it with their own simulation on a different screen, they are picking up astronomy, physics, aerodynamics and computer science almost without realizing it.
"There's about $9,000 in equipment here," Beatty said. "It all came out of my pocket. We're desperately in need of some sponsorship here. I got a $100 check from a man who read about us, but it cost me $200 just to mail out answers to all the queries. We get a lot of electronic hardware and software and other stuff from local companies. Montgomery Ward and Penney sent us things, and Solarex gave the solar cells, and Danzer Metal donated the robot frame."
Sometimes local engineers come in to give advice or help with the nightmare of wiring that bristles underneath the control panels. NASA has provided stacks of slides taken by the astronauts, so the cadets can project on the big screen the same sights one would see from the portholes as they simulate flight in orbit and in trajectory (as calculated by themselves) to the moon. They can even push a button on the console and play Gustav Holst's "The Planets."
One reason Beatty can spend so much time with the project is that he is out of a job. A technical illustrator and graphic artist, he has worked for NASA and Johns Hopkins University, doing drawings of Sealab, satellites and other advanced designs. He hopes to find work teaching this fall: He has a Maryland certificate in commercial and fine arts and has taught science, too. His wife, Audrey, is assistant director of personnel for a medical publisher. Their sons, Donald, 25, and Thomas Gregory, 24, are on their own.
Some weekends the cadets visit Goddard Space Flight Center or the Air and Space Museum. Sometimes they discuss problems of space flight or watch film clips. When the sky is clear they head for their launching site.
"We teach safety here, too," Beatty said. "We follow the National Association of Rocketry procedures. The propellant is a little shaped charge with an oxidizer in it that you get at the larger hobby shops. We do all our firing electrically."
They built their own arming device. It has a relay of push buttons so it won't go off if someone hits it accidentally. The rocket bodies come from kits, but often they are modified by the young scientists. One rocket has a double fuselage. Another has tilted fins to make it spiral in flight. Everyone is looking forward to the big regional meet July 27 at Goddard, where you can see rockets six inches in diameter and little ones hardly bigger than a pencil.
There's a dud on the pad. The trigger is disconnected and Gary Zimmerman, 15, goes forward, wearing an industrial face mask. The others wait. Three boys stationed around the field to catch the falling rockets slump in the afternoon heat. A pretzel truck pulls off the highway and the driver gets out to watch.
Charlie Shafer, 12, wears the hard hat now.
"Permission to launch!"
"Five--four--three--two--one . . ."
It's a good one, maybe 500 feet. The breeze catches it and it drifts over the high school.
"Run!" shouts Beatty. "Hurry! Catch it!"
But it lands on the school roof. Everyone groans. Beatty stamps off to find someone to let him into the building. The boys stand outside the school fence, hands on hips, watching the roof to see if Beatty is going to show up there . . .
Suddenly it seems we are no longer in the space age at all, but looking at one of those timeless American scenes: the back lot softball game when somebody has hit a home run through the neighbor's parlor window. There are things that will never change.