NASA IS FOREVER "counting down" to some significant event -- a rocket launch, a spacecraft rendezvous with a planet, even a congressional committee hearing. Today, in the Office of Legislative Affairs, NASA Headquarters, it's T-minus-15, or 15 days till Rep. Don Fuqua's subcommittee hearing on the space shuttle.

And I have a personal countdown. For me, it's R-minus-4. On Friday I'm retiring voluntarily after 26 years of government service.

The Fuqua focus is on the space shuttle's transition from R & D to an operational space transportation system. There are people on Capitol Hill who think the agency has been tardy in bringing shuttle development problems to their attention. Hundreds of millions of dollars are involved. The last time we were in really deep trouble with Congress was after the Apollo fire of January 1967. There was an agonizing row-back from those waters.

My thoughts retrodrift to July 16, 1969, when NASA airlifted a majority of Congress to Cape Canaveral for the launch of Apollo 11, the first landing on the moon. I wonder: Did the Battle of Bull Run draw a majority of Congress to Manassas? If not, NASA holds the record for out-of-town attractions. Should I call Guinness?

It was a logistical event, that congressional trip to Apollo 11. At 3 a.m. on the day of the launch, 10 chartered buses crawled away from the House and Senate office buildings loaded with members and their spouses or traveling companions, some of whom had come directly from well-known Capitol Hill watering holes. Destination: Andrews Air Force Base. At 5:30 a.m. four chartered airliners took off for the 9:32 a.m. launch. The returned that afternoon, after Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were safely in orbit.

My reminiscences are interrupted by three congressional phone calls: (1) Can NASA send a female astronaut to address the Pennsylvania Science Teachers Association convention in November? I'll check Houston. (2) What is NASA doing to help develop lighter-than-air ships (blimps)? We're into that; I'll send a written report. (3) A constituent of an Ohio congressman wants to know whether NASA foresees any difficulty in obtaining chromium for conversion. I'll have to call back. Tuesday

Turns out the United States gets its chromium from Rhodesia and South Africa. Despite political developments there our project manager in Cleveland thinks there is no real supply problem. Pass this on to the congressman's office.

I stuff my Skylab T-shirt into the briefcase to take home. Printed on it above the Skylab emblem is, "It Sure Ain't Bird . . .." It's a gift from my friend Bob Williams and is blue because Bob knew I was on the Blue Team at the 'round-the-clock Skylab Coordination Center. Legislative Affairs was to notify pertinent members of Congress if Skylab appeared to be falling on the United States. We particularly didn't want it to hit Cambridge, Mass. (Speaker O'Neill) or Springfield, Mass. (Rep. Eddie Boland, who handles our appropriations). I lost the office pool on Skylab entry, even though I had drawn a hot hand: the geographical area embracing much of OPEC. Circulating in headquarters is an editorial from the July 1 edition of the Perth West Australian: ". . . We're celebrities and there is a temptation to swagger a bit. NASA may have put the damn thing up there but we're the ones who saw it down." Wednesday

It's R-minus-2 and more warm memories float in my thoughts. On April 16, 1972, King Hussein taxied his jet into the wing of one of our two charters on the Canaveral landing strip. This was a half-hour after the Apollo 16 launch. Using a bullborn, I was explaining the circumstances to the members of Congress assembled. Mo Udall shouted, "It's all your fault, Sturdevant, and you ought to be fired." I hoped he was kidding. He was. The congressmen boarded the undamaged charter and the rest of us (NASA people and congressional staff) were bused to the Patrick AFB officers' club to wait for a replacement plane. The wait was long and the bar was open. The Atlantic is only a few yards from the club's patio. Several of the detainees found themselves splashing around in the surf fully clothed. The replacement arrived; we were flown back to Andrews late at night. A high NASA official, since retired, was pulled over by a cop in Georgetown at 1 a.m. and asked for his driver's license. "Officer," he said, "you probably won't believe this but I was down at the moon launch in Florida this afternoon and I fell in the ocean and lost my wallet."

Meanwhile, I attend a strategy session on upcoming windmill testimony. Does Rep. Dick Ottinger, chairman of the energy subcommittee, favor big windmills feeding into utility grids or small ones supporting family or community needs? I think the latter, although there is information he may be coming around to support both. NASA builds big windmills for the Department of Energy; somebody else does the little ones.

Two days to go. Thursday

An irritated staffer of the Appropriations Committee phones after reading Tom O'Toole's piece in the Post about the problems of Galileo, the Jupiter orbiter/probe scheduled for launch in 1982. Says we're not keeping him and the subcommittee chairman fully informed. I arrange a briefing and take a program official to the Capitol appropriations office to explain the situation at length. Lunch at the Democratic Club. Several lobbyists there, all friends. They tend to consider me a colleague, but I have to point out that lobbying with appropriated funds (my salary, for instance) is illegal, and bureaucrats' expense accounts are limited to cab fares.

Back at the office I look over a draft report prepared in response to the Science and Technology Committee's request for a "white paper" on aeronautics (the first "A" in NASA). They're looking for a "bold new initiative," including information on program options, costs and schedules. Don't know whether this will satisfy them, but there it goes into the out-box with my initials on it.

I'm asked for a report on Dr. George Low's recent appearance before Mike McCormack's energy subcommittee in its investigation into safety implications of Three Mile Island. George is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a former deputy administrator of NASA. He had been put in charge of the Apollo program after the 1967 fire. He described how safety was handled (strictly) after the catastrophe. The techniques might be applicable to nuclear power plant operations.

I recall taking George up to meet Hubert Humphrey after his return to the Sentate in 1971. "I disagree with some of my liberal friends on the space program," the former vice president said. "I think it has great value. I know why you went to the moon. It's like hitting a mule over the head with a two-by-four. You had to get attention. Friday

Lunch at the National Press Club, to which I am wont to repair on occasion since journalism is my second profession. I used to be a newspaperman myself.

Back at the office, handshakes, smiles and back-slapping. I pocket my retirement papers and walk out the front door of 400 Maryland Ave. SW. I glance across the street at the Air and Space Museum, the most popular attraction in town. I signal a cab for the ride home. No Metro on this day!

"To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization," Bertrand Russell wrote, so Patty and I are off on a trip to France. On our return next month there'll be plenty to do in the Company Town.