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Flights of fancy – astronaut meets racing driver

ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer will fly to the ISS on 31 October. He talks to Timo Bernhard – overall Le Mans winner, record holder and former sports car world champion. How have the two men succeeded in making their dreams come true? Two people, two missions – the same dedication.

In Saarland, people often look up to the sky. The reason is the military jets that train their flight manoeuvres over the small German state on the border with France. Matthias Maurer and Timo Bernhard grew up with this local custom of gazing at the sky. Fascinated, always, by technology and speed. One is an astronaut, the other a racing driver.

The astronaut

This is the acceleration that ESA astronaut Maurer is looking forward to. He will experience it in the Crew Dragon capsule from SpaceX – on the tip of a Falcon 9 rocket. Roughly 24 hours later, he will begin his duties on the International Space Station (ISS). Maurer will the spend the lion’s share of his days working.

Each astronaut conducts between 100 and 150 experiments during their roughly six-month stay on the ISS – and in the tightest of spaces. Maurer holds a doctorate in materials science.

Subject of study

In the half year he’ll spend at the space station, his bones will age 30 times faster than on earth. “We humans are not built for weightlessness,” he says. “The musculature and the immune system deteriorate, and I will develop eye problems.” The optic nerves can be compromised. The objective is to find out how people can stay healthy in space – how they can live on the Moon and, from there, travel onwards to Mars.

Maurer applied to be an astronaut with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2008 and was one of 8,500 candidates. “I was a scientist and I saw the opportunity to work with the best technology as part of an international team – and I was also attracted by the adventure of it.” He would have to wait, though. He learned English, French, and Spanish as a student; now he’s added Chinese and Russian for crisis-proof communication with his international colleagues.

The racing driver

A drawing he did as a child offers irrefutable evidence – Maurer had wanted to be a racing driver. Bernhard, meanwhile, had at the age of four declared to his father and his buddies – recreational racing drivers all – that he also wanted to race cars. Kart, Formula racing – his parents sensed his ambition and never let on how tight the money really was.

Starting in 2012, he was the first driver to grapple his way into the Porsche project to return to the top category of endurance racing. He experienced all the development setbacks with the futuristic Le Mans prototype, the Porsche 919 Hybrid. Le Mans prototype Porsche 919 Hybrid In 2014, 2015, and 2016, overall victory for Porsche at Le Mans seemed within reach for Bernhard. In 2018, he drove the 919 Hybrid Evo, a further evolution of the racing car, to a world-renowned lap record on the Nordschleife of the Nürburgring: 5:19:546 minutes. He was a first-rate athlete throughout his entire career. He also doggedly worked his way into the technology so that he could be even more involved in improving the cars. Racing drivers are also human data recorders for engineers. In 2018, he drove the 919 Hybrid Evo, a further evolution of the racing car, to a world-renowned lap record on the Nordschleife of the Nürburgring: 5:19:546 minutes. “It was the most dangerous thing I ever did in my career,” he admits.

The drive

Mastering a kart, drifting, getting faster. Then the competitive part came into play. The third and most important aspect was a later insight: the will to advance technology. Very few people are aware, he says, of what they owe to motor racing. With the Porsche 919 Hybrid, we advanced into the 800-volt technology that would reach series maturity in the Porsche Taycan. In Formula E the cars are all-electric and in the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup we test renewable fuels. Motorsport takes responsibility for technological advancement.

Moon mission the next goal

Races – running, on horseback or in a vehicle – are as archaic and constant a feature of human society as that which first moved Maurer: We humans have always looked to the sky and wanted to understand the universe. We can learn from the Moon, that part of the Earth that lay untouched for four and a half billion years. He hopes that in a later mission he may set foot on the Moon himself. A return journey to Mars lasting at least 500 days would make no sense if people were not in good condition when they arrived and a spacecraft were only able to carry the absolute necessities of survival, he elaborates.

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Oct 30, 2021 at 04:31

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