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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Headed to a galaxy far, far away ...

One of the lightsabers used in the making of the original 'Star Wars' will be on board the space shuttle Discovery in October

A long time ago, 30 years to be exact, in a galaxy called Hollywood, an ultimate weapon was developed with enough power to mesmerize an entire species.

One of those weapons from the original 1977 "Star Wars" movie, the very lightsaber that hung on young Luke Skywalker's belt, delighted and amazed passengers and a bevy of baggage handlers, reporters and publicists Tuesday morning at Oakland International Airport.

There, at Southwest Airlines' Terminal 2 baggage claim area, the cosmic swashbuckler's sidearm bridged the gap between the fantasy world wrought by George Lucas' six blockbuster movies and the reality of extraterrestrial travel.

Chewbacca, the Bigfoot-resembling Wookie, green-armor-clad bounty hunter Boba Fett and a delegation of other characters from the films presented NASA with the lightsaber for its first real space journey in October.

Lucasfilm, based at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, loaned the cinematic artifact to NASA so that real-life astronauts can take the weapon, which resembles a fancy flashlight, aboard the space shuttle Discovery. The instrument famous for effortlessly slicing through Death Star bulkheads and disagreeable alien barflies is scheduled to lift off Oct. 23 for a short stay aboard the International Space Station.

Turns out NASA is staffed with more than a few aging "Star Wars" nerds.

Coming out of theaters three decades ago, "we looked up into the night sky and wondered about a galaxy far, far

Bornstein, NASA director of marketing and corporate sponsorships.

"So many people at NASA, so many of the scientists, were inspired by 'Star Wars' when they were kids," said Lucasfilm publicist Tracy Cannobbio.

"We find them inspirational," Cannobbio said. "To find out that they were inspired by us was amazing."

Those scientists weren't the only ones sucked into the Empire's vortex.

Ron Drinkard, a 50-year-old insurance broker from Vacaville, volunteered to suit up and play the part of blaster-armed Boba Fett. Lucasfilm sought his services and that of fellow members of the 501st Legion of Star Wars enacters.

Chris Richards, a 35-year-old Web site designer who donned a brown cloak to play the part of a Jedi master, said he and fellow members of the 501st Legion as well as Rebel Legion, both based in the Bay Area, often are called on to summon "the Force" at area events.

"By far this is special, because there's an actual piece of history that we're giving up to NASA that's going up in the space shuttle," said Richards, who lives in San Leandro.

In the end, it was Chewbacca, played by Lucasfilm actor Michael Healy of Marin County, who sat on the tractor that pushed back the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737. The plane would take Borenstein and the lightsaber in its shiny padded aluminum case to the Space Center in Houston.

The lightsaber, which was used as a costume prop while other versions of the weapon were used by the stunt doubles doing the fighting, will go on display at the center before and after the shuttle flight and eventually be returned to Lucasfilms.

Before Princess Leia and several imperial stormtroopers went through security, the Transportation Security Administration was questioned about its rules regarding lightsabers in carry-on luggage.

"I'm not a very big 'Star Wars' fan, so I'm not sure what it's capable of," said Sheyi Ogunleye, TSA's customer support and quality improvement manager for Oakland. "That's something for our screening experts to determine."

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