Fake shuttle mirrors man’s unfilled dream

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SATELLITE BEACH, Fla. (AP) - An 8-year-old boy tiptoed silently down the stairs of his parents’ home in a three-stoplight town to switch on the TV. His eyes wide in the dark room, Chuck Ryan watched a rocket blast off to the moon.

It was 1972, and he may have been living in a tiny Michigan town known for canoe racing, but he was really a child of the Apollo program.

He wanted to be the men he saw in pictures in a book on his parents’ shelf: Crew cuts. Cocky smiles. Silver suits as they climbed from spacecraft into jet fighters.

“They were always smiling,” Ryan said of the astronauts.

He eventually worked at NASA, but Ryan never earned one of those iconic suits.

Instead of a moon mission, he launched a nearly 20-year “romantic swashbuckling mission” of a man with a dream and a machine.

Ryan built his own shuttle.

A 15-ton titanic that in its heyday stopped tourists and admirers.

But, like Ryan, it never left Earth.

As a kid, Ryan climbed water towers and once dug a massive hole behind his house; a hole he imagined as an underground lair where he could tinker with projects like homemade hovercraft and a hand-built boat with outriggers.

“His parents knew that they just could not contain this guy,” a longtime friend, Bill Hanover, said. “He had too much energy, too much passion, a desire to know anything, from a time he was very young.”

When he turned 18, Ryan took $300 andhis small wedge of a sports car, a Triumph TR-7, and steered west. His first blue-and-yellow California license plate read: ACE NASA. He volunteered with NASA, and eventually spent time at three NASA centers. Mostly he did desk jobs: building databases, doing drafting work and creating manuals.

But his dream was to soar to space.

Poor eyesight, though, meant he likely would not earn pilot wings. But those wearing spacesuits and soaring to space were also scientists. Ryan enrolled in the engineering program at California Polytechnic State University in the early 1990s.

There, he created a club called SPAN: Support & Promotion for the Activities of NASA. NASA donated an old motion simulator to Cal-Poly. The students thought: Why not build a full flight deck?

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