ONE NIGHT WHEN HIS WIFE IRENE WAS waitressing at the restaurant and Bill Roe watched "Star Trek" reruns for at least the 100th time, the urge came to him to realize his dream. All this happened in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., 300 miles from Washington and much farther from outer space.
Roe got out a pencil and figured how to begin his request.
I want to go to space, he thought.
Pieces of the dream surrounded him in his small prefab house. Plastic spaceship models hung by fishing line over the television. More models, like the Eagle Timedrive ship from "Space 1999," were displayed in plexiglass cases in his "space room." "The Space Shuttle Operator's Manual" stood in the living-room bookcase.
His dream is no secret in the neighborhood. It is discussed regularly by coworkers at the Hudson River Psychiatric Center, where Roe works as a clerk, piling food in a freezer. The consensus is, his dream is weird.
If Bill Roe had lived 10,000 years ago and decided to explore the frontier, he would have walked away from his cave, and kept walking. In the age of great sailing ships he might have signed on with Columbus, or hung around the London docks asking for a berth.
But Bill Roe lives in a period of agonizing transition. Thousands who dream of traveling in space know it will soon be possible, but not soon enough. Roe is 56. For more than 30 years he has been fascinated by the stars, but in the age of space exploration you can't build your own ship in the back yard. You can't hang around a launching pad and offer to cook meals for astronauts. No matter how hard you train, how much you save, how powerful your desire, you need government permission to go to space.
Roe poured emotion into his letter to NASA: " . . . to be out there, to look back and see Earth as only a few have seen it, to look out into the Universe itself . . . and to think that my world and I are only a small part of it, this I must see for myself.
"My dream of almost 20 years is at hand with the Space Shuttle making regular trips . . . I feel my hopes can now come true. All I need is for someone to reach out and give me a helping hand. To make this trip would be the greatest adventure of my life, nothing would or could take its place."
It was not the first letter Roe had written NASA. The last reply had been pretty discouraging. "There is no waiting list and we will not retain unsolicited applications," the form letter had said.
Astronomer Carl Sagan's executive assistant had answered another letter in which Roe had asked whether Sagan could help him get to space. "I am 54 years old and I also sometimes dream about spaceflight," the assistant wrote. "But the best I can do to realize this dream is to read about it and do all I can to support the planetary exploration program. That is what I call, 'Beautiful downtown reality' . . . "
Roe has no use for such advice. "Inside me there's a feeling, a drive," he says. "People tell me give it up, you're not important enough. But I got to go. Why not put someone up there to tell it from the heart. Someone who's not famous, who wouldn't use a lot of big words. The space program needs an ordinary person. They had a congressman up there, a guy my age. Why not me?"
THIS IS what happened to Roe's last letter to NASA when it reached Washington. It got thrown into a bag with lots of other letters for NASA. It was carried into headquarters on Maryland Avenue. It was wheeled along the sixth floor, through a long green corridor with lots of brown steel doors. It passed Room 6101, the Discrimination Complaints Division, and Room 6097, Astronaut Appearances.
The letter finally arrived at Room 6093. There, in an office at the end of a row of secretaries, Gloria Todd opened it. Todd is a public relations specialist who has worked for NASA for 21 years. Todd does not want to go to space, but it is her job to answer letters from people who do.
"We get 1,500 to 5,000 letters a week," Todd says, "all kinds of inquiries. More since the shuttle disaster. People ask to be buried in space; they want to be married in space. One gentleman asked if we could send a birthday greeting to his mother from space. We get requests to carry all kinds of things into space. School projects.
"The people who write us aren't crackpots, aren't crazy. They just want to go to space."
The same week Bill Roe's letter reached NASA, a Kansas City carpenter wrote, on stationery advertising New House Trim Work: "I would like to offer myself as the carpenter in space . . ."
A 76-year-old Indiana man in a wheelchair wrote, "I'd represent many older citizens . . ."
A deaf man from Dallas pleaded for a ride.
And a more representative letter from Tennessee, which featured a heart around the words "I love space," said, "Neisha and I would love to be the first kids in space!!"
Todd works hard to be nice, but the bottom line is she has to say no. "We try not to be negative. We say encouraging things. Everyone gets an answer. We have 25 standard letters for inquiries, but if they don't fit, we tailor a reply. We tell children to study science and math. We say, 'Please watch news reports for future developments.' And if a category has been established for applicants for the shuttle, we pass it on."
In her head, Gloria Todd composes a negative, sympathetic reply to Bill Roe.
But Roe's letter got an unexpected break. Its arrival coincided with a phone call Todd received from a reporter. The reporter had been wondering who answers letters from people who want to go to space. Todd called Roe to ask whether it was all right to pass along his name.
"When I heard NASA was trying to reach me, I got all excited," Roe says. "My friends thought it was a joke, but I saw that 202 area code, and I knew it was no joke. Nobody would make a joke long distance. It costs too much."
Maybe you think this could be a Cinderella story about one letter in a million granted its wish. "Maybe someone will see the article and send me to space," says Roe.
So here it is again, NASA, Bill Roe's astronaut re'sume'. Roe is in good health. He went back and finished high school last year and even completed 15 weeks at Dutchess Community College. "Maybe that will make me more attractive to them," he says. He's alone at night a lot because Irene works and the kids don't live at home anymore.
After 32 years in the same job, he lost his $25,000-a-year printer position last year when the company folded. His salary at the Psychiatric Center is $14,800. He has a statue of the Virgin Mary in his bedroom, and he lights candles regularly to thank her for letting him have a house. He has never traveled overseas, but once he went to Maryland. His six kids telephone a lot. They give him space manuals and posters for his birthday because he loves them so much. Sometimes he closes his eyes and sees himself in a spaceship. "I can lose myself in space," he says.
"In a hundred years things will be great," Roe says. His black hair is combed back. His blue eyes are magnified by glasses. He wears the buckle of his belt on his side, not in front, and he has sideburns like Marlon Brando in "The Wild Bunch." "It's gonna be beautiful. We'll have personalized robots in factories. We'll build that Moon Base Alpha. Everyone will get advancement because of their skills, not because of who they know, like today. It's something to look forward to."
Irene just says, "He was born too soon."
BOB REISS writes frequently for The Magazine.