(Florida Today) 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?
At an open house for prospective students, the simulator shook and rattled and rumbled. SPAN membersbuilt a console with switches and headsets that piped in actual launch recordings. They mounted a TV to it, showing images: clearing the tower, shooting toward the stars.
Ryan watched the smiling students. He thought: Why not build a cargo bay?
Why not build a full-size replica shuttle?
School administrators thought "students are supposed to do little student things," Ryan said. "That's what I didn't want SPAN to be. I didn't want us to do something little. I wanted it to be meaningful and used by NASA."
Construction began in the mid-1990s. Companies donated use of sheet metal shops, thousands of toggle switches, fiberglass, wood, tons of steel and hundreds of gallons of paint.
As years wore on, fewer students showed up to help. Ryan never earned his degree. He didn't return to work at NASA.
The shuttle had to be moved from Cal-Poly to an airplane hangar. Later, it would get displaced to an industrial yard, then a strawberry field.
Ryan lived off berries from the field and cans of vegetarian chili. When money ran out, he'd find a part-time job pulling weeds and cutting back brush for local businesses.
In one of the moves, a crane hoisted the clamshell-shaped flight deck 10 feet in the air to put it on a truck bed.
It crashed onto asphalt below. The wood splintered. Steel joints caved.
Hanover tried to persuade Ryan to give up.
"Bill thought the whole project was pushing me to the raggedy edge of sanity," Ryan said. "There was no quit. But there was lots and lots of sacrifice. The shuttle was my mistress, and the girlfriends didn't like that."
Hanover married and fathered eight children while Ryan spent day and night building the pseudo spaceship.
"I was the one of my friends that most wanted to be married growing up, and now I'm the last bachelor," Ryan said. "I'm not jealous of them because I always felt it will happen, eventually."
His only regret is not spending more time with his father, who died during the project.
Ryan was lonely and called Hanover daily. When the shuttle was in the strawberry field, Ryan lived in an abandoned double-wide nearby. He had one power cord. He let gallons of water heat in the trunk of his car so he could shower.
Ryan befriended a mangy mutt named Lucky, though "he didn't look it." Ryan called him "Sin Suerte." That's Spanish for "without luck."
Ryan named the vessel Resolution, a backup name for the orbiter Endeavour. He contacted NASA to see if the agency wanted a replica shuttle. He spent 10 years asking.
One day, the firefighting contractor at Kennedy Space Center called. They would use Resolution as a training facility if Ryan could get it to Florida.
Ryan's decade-long project had a mission. He added an exclamation point to the name: Resolution!
Preparing the shuttle to move took months. Final preparations for the 3,000-mile trip took 10 days and 10 nights. Hanover flew out to help, and they battled a fierce Santa Maria, Calif., valley wind that whipped protective plastic from their hands as they wrapped the shuttle. In the pouring rain, they busted their knuckles on foot-long bolts attaching the pieces to the rail car.
Before departing to the Sunshine State, a friend gave Ryan a plaque. It says: "He who says it is impossible shouldn't interrupt he who is doing it."
In 2005, the train hauling three, two-story-tall chunks of the shuttle's crew compartment chugged into KSC.
Resolution! was part of NASA's fleet.
Mission accomplished. Briefly.
The Columbia disaster of two years earlier had heightened liability concerns, and NASA asked Ryan to finish the shuttle off site. He moved it twice again, first to near Shuttles Bar and eventually landing east of North Courtenay Parkway about a mile south of the space center, where it remains today.
"The only solace I have in the amount of suffering and sacrifice from all that has gone into this is that I did get it to them," Ryan said.
Ryan finished building the shuttle while living in a semi trailer on the primitive 30-acre site. He ate oranges he found on the ground in nearby groves and cans of vegetarian chili. He got a job stocking shelves at Publix.
The site became a stopping point for tourists and KSC employees driving up State Road 3.
Then came the wind and rain of Tropical Storm Fay in 2008. Water seeped through seams of Resolution! and crept to thigh-high outside.
"It was like trying to build a ship while at sea," Ryan said. He was repairing the storm-soaked shuttle when a tornado spun through, ripping fiberglass panels from the shuttle's wood-and-steel frame. Ryan rode out the twister clinging to a ladder inside.
"I kind of yelled to God, "You take this shuttle 1 inch off the ground and I get astronaut wings," Ryan said.
After the storm came the cannonball that sank the ship. The end of the shuttle program was nearing.
There was no need to train in a shuttle anymore.
NASA dismissed Ryan's Resolution!.
Ryan tried to find a good home for the shuttle, but no one wanted to pay to move it, a job only a crane could handle. He stripped toggle switches and seats and anything inside. The materials went to whoever would take them.
In recent years, Mother Nature has composted much of the wood that formed the shuttle's nose. Today, only the crew quarters remain, a rotting, soggy mass of particle board and peeling green paint. Birds have nested among the support beams. Wasps have claimed corners and Brazilian pepper trees are climbing in, too. The shuttle is slightly hidden beside a road frequented by space center workers.
The black letters of Resolution! on the starboard side now read: Resolu. The peeling plastic letters on the port side read, perhaps ironically: solution!.
A sign for Atlantic Mortgage Services of Satellite Beach leans against rubble near the shipwrecked shuttle.
Atlantic president Dan Overstreet owns the land where Resolution! rests. He said he's looking for a space-related use for the shuttle. He doesn't want to destroy it, calling it a "local fixture."
Ryan's romantic mission turned into "mission impossible." He is 49 years old, lives in Minnesota and plans to return to school to finish his degree. He still wants to be an astronaut.
"I was miserable; physically and emotionally miserable," Ryan said of the project. "But my soul was always happy. I felt like I was fighting the good fight. I felt like I was doing something only I would do. That I was in the right place."
He is writing a book about NASA and building Resolution!. Maybe, Ryan said, the book could become a movie. He's considering naming the book after that mutt, Sin Suerte.