Max and Daniel visit NASA’s Johnson Space Center

It’s often said that Formula One really is a bit like rocket science – an endeavour in which elite pilots are backed by some fairly intricate science and simulation in pursuit of a complex target.

It’s not a comparison we’ve had the chance to put to the test before now but this week’s trip to Texas provided the ideal opportunity in the shape of a pre-race journey to see some actual space tech – at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Yes indeed, after five years of racing in Austin, a quick look at a map of Texas revealed that it’s a short three-hour drive from COTA to Houston’s incredible space facility. So, after a few phone calls to gain access and then a few more to assure the people at NASA that “really, the boys do stuff similar to this all the time, we promise they won’t break anything – well, not anything important,” we were on our way.

The Johnson Space Center is one of the original homes of space flight in the US and has been training astronauts for work off-world for more than 50 years. It’s also the home of Mission Control, the command centre responsible for all manned space missions since the Gemini projects of the mid-1960s. It was from here that the Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle missions were run.

It’s also the place where astronauts from all over the world get trained and, with the idea in mind that F1 drivers are not far removed from elite fighter pilots, we wanted to see if our drivers saw any parallels between the worlds of racing and of space flight.

First up was the Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS) system, designed to simulate reduced gravity environments using a system similar to an overhead bridge crane. The basic function is to harness a pilot or payload to an overhead crane, which via a range of sensors, tracks motion and simulates weightlessness. What’s the goal of the system for astronauts? To support testing, development, and training for future missions to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, or any other celestial destination.

“I really enjoyed the feeling of being in space, the micro-gravity ARGOS area, trying to manage your way and dictate your manoeuvres without flying into space and never coming back… that was fun,” said Daniel.

While the ARGOS was fun, it was nothing compared to the boys’ next stop, with machinery they could definitely feel qualified to review – Space Vehicles!

NASA is currently testing concepts for a new generation of surface exploration vehicles for use on the Moon and Mars and our drivers were given a chance to get behind the wheel of one such vehicle.

The version driven by Max and Daniel features a cabin mounted on a chassis with wheels that can pivot 360 degrees and drive about 10kph in any direction. It’s about the size of a pickup truck (with 12 wheels) and can house two astronauts for up to 14 days with sleeping and sanitary facilities.

The frame was developed in conjunction with an off-road race truck team and was field-tested in the desert with 140km of driving on rough lava. Essentially it’s the ultimate monster truck.

“Driving that thing was really cool,” enthused Max. “There was a lot of travel of the suspension, so it was a lot of fun, you could really hit a lot of rocks. I really enjoyed it today.”

The final stop on the tour was the heart of Space Center operations, Mission Control, where Max and Daniel were given an insight into how NASA prepares, analyses data, builds strategies and executes its flight missions. In essence, it’s not a million miles away from how a Formula One prepares for each race weekend. Not a million miles, just about 250,000km give or take!

“There really are a lot of similarities between this and F1, just the technology alone,” said Daniel. “I had a guest come to a race last year, when they got into the garage they were like: this is like a space station. We went to mission control here and it’s really like what we have in the Ops Room in Milton Keynes. Even the safety technology is similar. The astronauts go through the same measurements, a similar kind of HANS device etc. It’s really cool.”

Max too was quick to point out the similarities between the two. “There are quite a lot of comparisons, if you really want to talk about it we could go on for an hour! The control centre looks pretty similar to ours. We share a lot of the same technology. It was really interesting for us to see that and I bet it would be the same if they could see ours.”