Everyone is Jim and George and Joe. The uniform is shirts and jeans. The work day is eight hours exactly, with weekends and holidays off. There is even a nightly volleyball game under the Texas moon.
But Space Shuttles do not depart from country clubs. Despite the casualness of life at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center here, 35 astronauts - including two from Washington - have been training hard for nearly three months. There is a lot to learn, and only 18 months to learn it, before America's first Space Shuttle is launched.
But if the next few years promise hard labor for Frederick Hauck and Frederick Gregory, Washington's two Space Shuttle pilots, the last seven months haven't exactly been slouches.
Since they were chosen in January, Rick Hauck and Fred Gregory have endured about 300 news media interviews between them, given almost as many speeches and answered twice as many letters. In their spare time, each moved a family to Houston from half a country away.
Hauck and Gregory are the same age (37). They both grew up in Washington (Hauck in Cleveland Park, Gregory in Far Southeast). They were both promising graduates of Washington high schools (Hauck, St. Albans; Gregory, Anacostia). They are both career military test pilots (Hauck is a Navy man; Gregory is Air Force).
Still, the two men had never met before arriving here July 10. But that has been remedied quickly.
Hauck and Gregory are both in the "red" training group, a unit that has spent the summer studying aviation, engineering and basic space physics and medicine.
The "reds" train almost daily in T-38 jet fighters. They have undergone training that is both exotic (parachute jumps at an Air Force base in Enid, Okla.) and cosmetic (lessons in dealing with the media and in handling personal finances).
But most days, it is as if Hauck, Gregory and their classmates are back in college.
They bounce from building to building around the campus-like Space Center here, listening to lectures and seminars - and taking copious notes.But homework and exams are not part of this college because, as Space Shuttle training coordinator Tom Kaiser put it, "We don't assume anyone is going to fail." In fact, Kaiser said, he has been beseiged by requests from eager-beaver shuttlists for extra and more detailed lessons.
Those will begin this fall. When they do, Gregory and Hauck will be deeply and exclusively immersed in the techniques and technicalities of operating a spacecraft.
For now, however, the training is general. So the two Washingtonians are finding time to become the frontline mainstays of the astronaut volleyball team - and fast friends.
One recent weekend, Gregory, Hauck and their sons went water skiing on Clear Lake, an inlet off nearby Galveston Bay.
"It was neither clear nor a lake," Gregory said, "but we all had fun."
"Fred and his son have become good friends of my boy and me," Hauck added.
Although it is far too soon to tell (assignments to specific shuttle missions will not be made for at least a year), it is possible that Hauck and Gregory will fly into space together.
According to Jay Honeycutt, special assistant to the director of flight operations, "They and all 35 Candidates are expected to fly at some time - especially if this thing grows to 20, 30, 40 flights a year, as we expect. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Hauck and Gregory flew together."
To the pilots themselves, however, carrying the D.C. banner into space together or having the honor of flying the first shuttle mission isn't as important as getting up there sometime.
"I'd just like to fly," said Gregory.
"I'm still coming to grips with the idea that it's really going to happen," added Hauck. "If it's with Fred, fine."
Indeed, ajustment has been the name of the game for Gregory and Hauck. Part of it has been personal - finding a home, dealing with neighbors who want autographs, learning Houston freeways. But part of it has involved melding with a space program that is far more austere than during the famed Apollo missions in the 1960s.
Bob Parker, a former astronaut who now helps develop Space Shuttle scientific projects and who sat on the astronaut selection committee, said Gregory and Hauck "will not help with any Nobel Prize-winning experiments.
"Vehicle concerns have been uppermost" with the Space Shuttle, Parker said. Because the budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is now about 60 percent of what it was 10 years ago, "we've had to be more understanding," he said. "If there is frustration here, it's frustration because we wanted the thing flying three years ago. But that was not to be."
Neither Gregory nor Hauck professed frustration, however.
"I feel very fortunate," said Hauck. "I don't feel an elite mood here, as if we're better than people. All the other folks who applied, we weren't that different from any of them."
Gregory said he was down on his "knees with awe" when he first arrived - to the point where he unabashedly asked Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, for his autograph.
He has since realized that "everyone here is just people - it's just like an office situation. But I feel tremendous.The group is the most compatible I've ever been with . . . The work is so much fun, it's almost like playing."
The same could not be said for Gregory's early military career. In slightly more than a year of duty in Vietnam, Gregory flew 593 helicopter missions, rescuing downed pilots or hemmed-in ground troops.
Gregory is the first member of his family to pursue a military career. The son and grandson of teachers, he grew up in a home on Massacusetts Avenue SE, where his mother still lives. An Aminus student at Anacostia High, Gregory was graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1964. He has been flying ever since.
Hauck is a third-generation Navy officer. His father's service at the Pentagon brought him to live with his grandparents on Ordway Street NW on three separate occasions. A brilliant student at St. Albans, he has wanted to be an astronaut since watching Alan Shepard's pioneering space flight in 1964.
Both Gregory and Hauck said that learning NASA jargon - especially acronyms - has been the most difficult part of training so far. But both had high praise for the training itself - especially a "buddy system" that assigns each trainee to an experienced astronaut, all day, every day, for answers and insights. Hauck has been working with Dick Truly, Gregory with Fred Haise Jr.
All in all, Washington seems far behind the two astronauts.
"But I guarantee you one thing," said Gregory. "One day pretty soon, it'll be a lot farther behind. We'll be looking at it from above."