If not one small step for man, it was one giant leap for two racing drivers.
Today they are drivers for Toro Rosso’s Formula 1 team, but traveling to space was a childhood dream for 23-year-old Frenchman Pierre Gasly and 25-year-old Russian Daniil Kvyat.
And ahead of the United States Grand Prix in Austin, the F1 duo enjoyed a grand tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landings. NASA, established in 1958, is the US agency for space exploration and research.
“I’ve always dreamed of visiting this place,” said Gasly. “To speak with astronauts who are currently in space, it’s something I’ve never imagined. It’s a really special experience.”
Their trip began with a spin in a moon rover – top speed of about 45 miles per hour – outside the center. The course resembles a rocky lunar landscape for the six-wheeler, which is designed to withstand moon dust and debris.
From Mission Control, the pair dialed Luca Parmitano, commander at the International Space Station (ISS). Spinning in orbit 260 miles above, Parmitano chatted about life in space with Kyvat and Gasly, in Italian and French respectively.
Astronauts at the ISS follow a daily two-hour workout to prevent accelerated muscle and bone density loss, with weights adapted to a micro-gravity environment.
ISS astronauts conduct wide-ranging research, from cosmic rays to stem cells, while Mission Control in Houston provides a key point of communication with Earth.
“To see Luca there, with no gravity – it was so cool to feel so connected to something that’s so far away from you,” said Kvyat.
In the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, the drivers saw the machinery that prepares pilots and engineers for their voyages to the ISS. Escorted by astronauts, Gasly and Kvyat stopped by a model of the Cupola, a dome with seven windows where ISS inhabitants can watch over the blue planet.
For spacewalk training, NASA takes its recruits under water. Astronauts don space suits to train in a purpose-built, 6.2-million-gallon pool. By simulating a weightless environment, the pool helps astronauts to perfect their manual skills before leaving Earth.
Despite the grueling fitness requirements for F1 drivers – who, like astronauts, experience g-forces that put extreme pressure on the body’s cardiovascular system – Kvyat was awed by NASA’s training regimen
“What we do is sport – pure competition,” said the Russian driver. “What these guys are doing here is more like a mission for the good of humanity.”
Kvyat and Gasly took 12th and 16th positions in Sunday’s race, with Valtteri Bottas from Finland claiming victory with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Team. In second place, Lewis Hamilton became the second most successful F1 driver of all time, with six world titles to his name.