INSIGHT: How 'space age' is racing? Let's ask an astronaut

NASA

INSIGHT: How 'space age' is racing? Let's ask an astronaut

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: How 'space age' is racing? Let's ask an astronaut

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‘Space age’. It’s a term often used in motorsport and automotive circles to describe something new, something forward thinking, or something innovative. But just how ‘space age’ is motorsport?

Drew Feustel is a NASA astronaut, a veteran of three missions including the final Hubble Space Telescope and Space Shuttle Endeavor missions, as well as three space walks. (ED: Feustel is pictured in the main image reaching for a power tool as he works near the Hubble Space Telescope on the end of the remote manipulator system arm, controlled from inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis, in 2009). He also happens to be a big motorsport fan, so meeting up with him at the latest round of Extreme E, the world’s most forward-thinking motorsport series, in Sardinia felt rather appropriate.

After sampling GMC’s new Hummer EV – a futuristic machine in itself with a ‘Watts To Freedom’ launch mode, a rover-like crabbing feature, plus plenty more impressive innovations – together, thanks to Chip Ganassi Racing, we stop in the heart of the Island X Prix paddock to discuss what both industries share in common.

“I started out as a motorsports fan and then eventually got into the space business – and what I’ve seen over the years is so much overlap,” Feustel tells RACER. “Not just the technology, and not between drivers and astronauts with the need for speed and living on the edge and excitement and wanting to go fast, but just even with the engineering people that are running the teams, and how they’re all very interested in space technology and how everybody in space technology is interested in race technology.

“It’s all leading edge stuff, so it’s just been my experience that all aspects of racing have a huge overlap with many aspects of spaceflight. It’s incredible.

“The interest is always a sort of mutual respect across the boundary, because we think everything that’s going on in motorsports is cool and the way they sort of try to be the leaders and see how far they can push the envelope. And it’s the same way with motorsports looking back at us, the exploration, the development and testing of new technologies… there’s just a lot of crossover.”

Of course, with NASA’s MO being rockets, there’s not so much crossover in terms of the tech to get the vehicles moving, Feustel explains. But under the skin, you start to find more parallels, especially in the environmentally-conscious Extreme E series and its upcoming hydrogen-powered spin-off Extreme H.

“I think you could say that something like Extreme E, as they look at electrification, and now there’s been talk of course of Extreme H with the hydrogen power, the fuel cells,” Feustel says. “We’ve got a fuel cell here [in the paddock] that’s providing electricity to charge the batteries; NASA and the space industry has been using fuel cells for decades to power spacecraft and I think there’s a lot of carryover with that technology.

Feustel’s suit is heavier on the mission patches than the sponsor logos, but he sees a lot of overlap in how the space and motorsport industries drive technological development. Image via NASA

“Of course, many of the things that the space industry do with the miniaturization of components and hardening of components, making things more durable to carry over to motorsports and vice versa… the motorsport industry probably drives a lot of that technology as well, especially the racing industry, to help build components and make them more reliable.”

It’s not just about the obvious elements though, with Extreme E also highlighting the plight of the planet as well as entertaining us with racing, and that’s another area where motorsport can find itself standing side-by-side with the space industry, as Feustel points out.

“This and Formula E, and eventually Extreme H, [are] trying to do things with racing not only to make the event greener itself, but also taking the opportunity to raise awareness of the challenges that we face as species on this planet that we’re living on, and for our entire lives we really haven’t made a good enough effort to protect this only place that we have,” he says.

“We do it at our own homes – we go to our homes, we upkeep them, we do maintenance, we keep them clean, we take care of them because we live in them.

“But what we don’t realize as humans is that this earth is a home too, and we live on it and we need to have a better realization, and I think that’s where I see the real advantage to what Extreme E’s doing.

“Traditional motorsport is what’s feeding this and the people that are in traditional motorsports are now coming into this as well, and that’s fantastic because we’re bringing that community along as well and everyone’s taking a different view of what’s the responsibility of racing, of motorsports and this sport and how we can contribute to the sustainability issues.”

Feustel’s passion for all things automotive and motorsport is clear to see, but while the constant development of our industry continues to impress him, don’t expect him to ditch rockets for race cars any time soon.

“I’m still operationally active in the astronaut corp and I still enjoy motorsports so I’m just continuing the adventure supporting human spaceflight and watching races,” he says. “I always enjoy going fast. I don’t think I’ve got what it takes to ride with these things; that’s pretty pretty abusive out there – this is pretty demanding. It’s a lot of fun to watch, though!”

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 9 – ROAD AMERICA

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