Guy Gardner has spent a good deal of his life waiting for a flight, and now it could be at least five years until his number is called.
It isn't an air traffic controllers' strike or crowded skies over National Airport that is keeping Gardner from packing his bags and heading for the flight deck. Gardner, of Alexandria, is a new astronaut and he is waiting for a seat aboard the United States space shuttle.
Two weeks ago, after a year of candidate training, Gardner and 18 others were placed on the active list of American astronauts. Those 19 new names swelled NASA's astronaut roster to 79, at the same time the space program, including future space shuttle launchings, is facing a slowdown.
As Gardner ruefully and realistically puts it, "There are 79 astronauts, and only one plane to fly right now."
The 33-year-old Gardner has been playing the waiting game since he was 13 and an eighth grader at the former Jefferson Junior High in Alexandria. That was the year, Gardner says, he made up his mind to be an astronaut.
"I guess even in eighth grade, I realized what my talents were," he says.
His mother, Worthy Gardner, who recently moved back to Alexandria after living in New Mexico for several years, says she had no doubt that 13-year-old Guy meant exactly what he said.
"Half the time, I would be waiting for him to come home from space rather than home from school," she says, only half-jokingly.
"Guy always got what he wanted," Worthy Gardner adds. "Even as a child, whatever Guy wanted he seemed to work for and get. He never said 'I want to do this.' He said 'I am going to do this.' "
Author Tom Wolfe, in his recent book about the original seven astronauts who flew the first Mercury missions, describes that combination of guts, talent and determination to succeed as "the right stuff."
When you ask Gardner about the "right stuff," his answers are an uncanny echo of Wolfe's eloquent description of the first seven astronauts.
"Well . . . I'm a good engineer and a good pilot. And I am adventuresome," Gardner says, almost shyly.
"It's a worthwhile endeavor, it's challenging. And I like the fact that you can escape the earth," he adds, admitting a long-standing penchant for Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov science fiction thrillers and Star Wars movies.
"Plus, I like to think of the astronauts being on the verge of the new frontier, or some neat expression like that," says Gardner in his best space hero voice, followed by a chuckle.
Gardner, an Air Force major, is a 1965 graduate of the former George Washington High School in Alexandria. In 1969, he was graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and went on to become a fighter pilot in Vietnam and a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, known as the top of the heap for military test pilots.
And when he finally boards a space shuttle, he doesn't even expect to be mentioned in the newspapers.
"When I fly in space, I hope it will have become routine," he says. "That is our objective here. It's the purpose of the space shuttle to make flight feasible and available and since I am going to fly so far downstream, I hope by then it will be routine."
Compared to the adoration and affection lavished on earlier astronauts, routine is an apt word to describe Gardner's attitude toward his place in the space program.
"The era is over when astronauts get ticker tape parades," he says. "Let's face it, there are a lot of astronauts running around here. It's just not that big of a deal being an astronaut."
In fact, when Gardner finally boards a space flight, he hopes his name will never become a household word.
"If it did, it would probably mean that something went wrong," he says.
Gardner, his wife Linda and their three children, aged 3 to 7, live about 10 minutes from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where Gardner has traded the flight line for a desk and his current assignment of working with flight data files.
"I check lists and procedures the crew follows while flying the space shuttle," he says. "I meet with people who design the procedures and work with them in the simulators.
"Of course, as an eighth grader, I thought an astronaut would always be flying. The period of waiting is longer than would be necessary if we had a fleet of space shuttles. It's interesting being in on the development phase, but it's not what you picture doing as an astronaut. I became well aware of what I would be doing in the apprenticeship period."
Gardner's apprenticeship began more than a year ago when he and 18 other persons were selected from 3,500 applicants for the program. Unlike earlier astronauts, who were drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of test pilots, there now are two types of astronauts -- --pilots, of which Gardner is the youngest, and mission specialists, the scientists who perform the experiments that now are the major purpose of space missions.
The candidate status lasts about a year, and John Lawrence, NASA public affairs officer, compares it to a trial marriage.
"It gives NASA a chance find out things like whether a candidate is flight repugnant or claustrophobic in a flight suit. And it helps the candidates understand what being an astronaut is. It's an overblown, glamorous profession that doesn't measure up to what you think. For the most part, the job is inundated in minutiae."
Gardner's promotion to astronaut puts him at the bottom of a list of pilot astronauts, which includes two other Washington area residents -- Frederick Gregory and Frederick Hauck. Gregory and Hauck were selected in 1978, and like Gardner, are still waiting for a flight.
In addition to his work with the space shuttle, Gardner, like other astronauts, still does some flying to maintain his proficiency. He keeps his 6'2", 185-pound frame in shape by swimming, bike riding, squash and handball.
He also goes on speaking engagements around the country, where he autographs a few pictures and tries to answer thousands of questions from space fans. The most common question, Gardner says, is, "When can I buy a ticket on the space shuttle?" Gardner is always surprised that "there are people who think you can buy a ticket on it like the Concorde."
When the space shuttle Columbia makes its second launch in early October, Guy Gardner will be watching with his feet on the ground. But he'll be thinking about the day he'll get his head in the clouds.
"I used to think I might get on a flight in 1985, now I say 1986, and I just heard at a meeting that they may have to cut back the flight schedule some more so it may be even later than that," says Gardner. "At times it's frustrating. But I've waited 20 years so far, and I can hang on another five or so."