The mid-week long read: space race part 2

Old acquaintances continue to compare their lives at the limit

2y ago

In 2017, Timo Bernhard, veteran of Porsche’s record-breaking LMP1 Hybrid programme, met Matthias Maurer, German astronaut and future resident of the International Space Station. The two were introduced at the Nordschleife, a little over a year before Bernhard would become the all-time lap record holder there in the 919 Evo.

Back then, the men compared notes on the challenges of piloting some of the fastest machines on Earth (and off it), finding remarkable similarities in their routines and rituals. A year later, Bernhard has guided Porsche to a hat-trick of wins at Le Mans and its third consecutive title in the World Endurance Championship. Maurer’s mission is closer to becoming a reality, meanwhile, with his launch date slated for between 2020 and 2022.

Today, Maurer is playing host, inviting Bernhard to the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne. And it is here, with a sickening thump, that a multi-million Euro Soyuz space capsule collides with the side of the International Space Station. A life-threatening docking disaster, but happily for Timo, a simulated one. “Wow,” he exclaims, “this is complicated. Compared with driving a car, you have to be more careful and more alert when flying a spacecraft.” This is a significant admission from a man used to driving the most complex racing car ever created at speeds in excess of 350km/h.

The simulator environment is crucial to both men’s training. Maurer reassures Bernhard that astronauts are expected to take around 1,000 attempts to nail the perfect docking maneuver. The driver, for his part, has lost count of the number of times he has lapped the Nürburgring’s legendary north loop in preparation for that staggering 5.19-minute run last summer.

With the pit-stop fail behind them, it’s time for astronaut and racer to climb aboard an ISS Columbus training module. A vast, 40 x 40 metre room holds 1:1 scale mock ups of the real space station modules, one of which is submerged in a 10-metre-deep pool to allow astronauts can get to grips with zero gravity.

“The suits are configured to make you feel weightless in water”, says Maurer, which is impressive considering they weigh around 130-kilos dry. Bernhard’s work suit, on the other hand, is a little easier to cope with. His fireproof overalls weigh barely one kilogram, and his helmet little more than that.

“I’ve never experienced what it feels like to be weightless,” he says, “but I would love to know.” Weightlessness is the reason astronauts have to exercise for two hours a day when they're in space. Racing drivers do something similar back on Earth, but while they run and lift weights to prepare for the physical strain of a race, astronauts train hard so they don’t return to Earth with the body of a 90-year-old.

"You age 30 times faster than on Earth,” Maurer explains. On the ISS he will have to train on treadmills with a rubber cord attached to counteract the weightlessness, on ergometers and on weight-training machines with vacuum cylinders. If you don’t exercise when in zero gravity, you lose bone density and muscle mass, your bodily fluids are redistributed, and you lose blood volume.

The real key to survival for both men, however, is teamwork. Both Bernhard and Maurer rely on huge teams to reach their goals, and both jobs require a lot of trust in those teams. “You need support from your team in order to do your job,” stresses the astronaut. Bernhard nods in assent: “I’m always in contact with my team via radio as well.”

Just as the people sitting at the control panel in Cologne transmit instructions remotely to their man in space, the engineers, sat in their pit in front of the monitors, observe every inch of Bernhard’s race. They monitor each tiny piece of data from the vehicle, checking the racing lines or giving precise feedback on fuel usage.

However, astronauts and racing-car drivers react differently in situations that require self-reliance – such as when a fire breaks out on the ISS, or when the car right in front of you, driving at 250 km/h, starts skidding. Timo Bernhard allows his gut instinct to guide him. He has milliseconds to react. “It’s become second nature, knowing what I should do in any situation,” says the 37-year-old.

For Maurer, things are very different. “The number one rule is to remain calm,” he explains. Every highly trained astronaut knows the exact procedure for any given crisis, and can reel them all off step-by-step. “If I don’t follow protocol, I might crash and die,” he says. “I can’t just park on the trackside and walk over to the pit”.

Despite these differences, the men are united by a common, if slightly chilling, bond: in their line of work, there may not be a second chance. The respect they have for one another is clear to see. Pushing boundaries, pushing themselves, both men exist on the outer limits of what is possible. Where practice makes perfect. Where perfection is essential.

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