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Friday, October 31, 2008

For Ex-N.F.L. Star, a Dream of Sports in Space

Published: October 30, 2008

GREENBELT, Md. — The game would be called Float Ball. It would combine elements of basketball, football and the Lionel Richie video for “Dancing on the Ceiling” into a sort of free-for-all, compelling weightless players to bounce off walls, obstacles and one another while herding weightless balls of various colors to either end of the playing space, which would be placed inside the cabin of a zero-gravity plane or, possibly, on the moon. Eventually, one day, if all went well, some sort of custom arena would be constructed. On Mars.

Zero Gravity Corporation

Ken Harvey, a former Washington Redskins linebacker in a zero-gravity plane.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

Harvey is promoting a project he calls Space Sportilization

“There’s a bonus,” said the game’s promoter, Ken Harvey, speaking to an attentive audience of National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers, technicians and scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center here recently, “where you have to pick up a person holding a certain ball and throw them through a hoop as a sort of extra point.”

The football analogy seemed to come easily to mind. Ken Harvey was that Ken Harvey, No. 57 in your Washington Redskins program for much of the late 1990s. Playing linebacker during the largely highlight-free interregnum of Coach Joe Gibbs, Harvey made four appearances in the Pro Bowl.

Now 43, he has not played a down since he dropped out of training camp in 1999. This year, he took a day job in the front office, where he has been charged with serving, according to Redskins management, “as a resource and adviser in the development of responsibility initiatives.”

With two sons nearing college age, Harvey has taken the steady, earthbound gig as an anchor while training his restless imagination on a high-concept project he has called, somewhat risibly, SpaceSportilization.

“I did things the hard way getting to the pros, and I’m doing things the hard way now,” he said during an interview in a back room of the space center, where a disused model satellite served as decoration. “But sometimes you’ve got to believe the unbelievable.”

For Harvey, the hard way had included dropping out of high school, working in a fast-food restaurant and rising through the junior college circuit before starting his career with the Phoenix Cardinals. After his run with the Redskins, there was talk of additional millions, then there were injuries and then there was talk of hundreds of thousands. He walked away from a shrinking pile of money into the booby-trapped netherworld of N.F.L. retirement.

While casting about as a motivational speaker, Harvey struck up a friendship with Allen Herbert, a fellow congregant at Grace Covenant Church in Chantilly, Va. Herbert, a consultant who studied aerospace engineering in college, encouraged him to consider the outer reaches of the tourism business.

In recent years, the space industry has turned increasingly to private sources of finance and inspiration. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation, a unit of the Federal Aviation Administration, has started licensing businesses for suborbital flights. One company, Virgin Galactic, has collected more than $25 million in deposits from about 250 prospective passengers.

Seeking his own role with some degree of skepticism, Harvey met with Eric Anderson, the president of Space Adventures, a private company in Vienna, Va., that has delivered six paying customers to the International Space Station.

“I’ve always been protective,” Harvey said, “because everyone’s always trying to use players.”

Anderson, whose company also operates suborbital flights providing five minutes of weightlessness for $5,000, said in an interview that a Float Ball league would require a couple of decades of significant reductions in the cost of space travel. In the meantime, he said, thinking big can hardly hurt, least of all when the big thinker is a famous football player.

“Ken is a friend, and someone who has the ability to make things happen,” Anderson said. “It just helps get people excited about space.”

In the end, Harvey’s inner Star Trek fan guided him away from the steakhouses and car dealerships of traditional N.F.L. retirement. Taking Herbert as a business partner, he set to work developing a futuristic movie, promoting envisioned athletic offshoots of extraterrestrial tourism and designing Float Ball. He has been invited to address the Global Space Technology Forum in Abu Dhabi next month.

Upon arrival here at the space flight center, on an invitation from the National Society of Black Engineers, Harvey excited a stir of autograph seekers in the security checkpoint.

Inside the campus, a collection of low-slung brick buildings dating to the 1950s, he was escorted on a tour of communications centers stranded in time, working rooms behind glass replete with mainframe computers, heavy phones and framed portraits of astronauts. The only thing missing seemed to be sweaty guys in thin neckties leaning over smoldering ashtrays. His guides spoke of long-ago flush times for space exploration in the cold war.

“You had somebody to compete against,” Harvey said, “like Redskins against Cowboys.”

When the time came for his presentation, Harvey descended the steps of a flag-decked auditorium. Stocky and bald-shaven, dressed in a patterned tie, gray suit, brown loafers and interlocking silver bracelets, he stood before a projection screen that displayed grainy images of the SpaceLab scientists performing gymnastic routines.

His audience, about 40 NASA specialists, fell silent. Harvey ran through a series of slides covering the troubled economy, the promise of space tourism, citations of sports in the work of science fiction novelists and precedent-setting events like Alan Shepard’s lunar golf shot. He cracked jokes, digressed liberally and quickly won over the group.

“You may say, what the heck is all this?” Harvey told his audience. “You’re talking about sports and entertainment complexes on the moon.”

Advanced concepts like the Float Ball league, he argued, would develop in time from astronaut fitness programs, virtual reality games, zero-gravity flights and educational efforts designed to instill post-space age children with new interstellar dreams.

“Sometimes,” he said, “it doesn’t happen in your generation, but you plan to see it in the next generation.”

Then the NASA employees quizzed Harvey on his strategy for making money from space sports, a goal that has largely eluded him so far. From the fifth row, Rosalyn Nelson, a thermal blanket technician, asked how the general public could afford games like Float Ball.

“Great, great, great question,” Harvey said. “Next, please.”