Commentary

Former astronaut catches NHRA buzz

Updated: April 13, 2012, 3:44 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- You're on the concrete runway, strapped into your seat so tightly you barely can breathe. You're surrounded by the best and latest safety equipment available to mankind. Your heart is beating rapidly as you feel the vibration of the engines that are about to ignite.

Three, two, one …

You're off, feeling more G-forces than you ever imagined possible.

This could be the launch of a Top Fuel dragster or Funny Car on Friday as it roars down one of the four 1,320-foot lanes at zMax Dragway. It also could be the launch of a NASA space shuttle as it leaves the pad from the Kennedy Space Center.

There are more similarities than you might think, as 65 math and science students from Northwest Cabarrus Middle School -- as well as a few unknowing reporters -- recently learned at an event featuring retired astronaut Joan Higginbotham and Funny Car star Bob Tasca.

[+] EnlargeJoan Higginbotham and Bob Tasca
Courtesy zMax Dragway Retired astronaut Joan Higginbotham, left, and Funny Car driver Bob Tasca get ready to roll down zMax Dragway.

They start with the personalities.

"We're both certifiably crazy," Tasca says.

If you've been around 15-time Funny Car champion John Force more than a couple of seconds you know that to be true from the NHRA side. But Higginbotham? She has a master's degree in management science and a master's in space science. She speaks softly -- a concept Force isn't familiar with -- and appears totally normal.

Crazy?

"I tell people there is a fine line between stupidity and insanity, and I'm not really sure what side of the line my toe is on," Higginbotham says with a laugh.

But the similarities are real, and they go way beyond mentality. There are safety factors such as seat-belt harnesses and firesuits. There are construction materials such as carbon fiber and Teflon. There are G-forces and negative G-forces. There are redundancies in preparation. There are concerns over extreme heat and disorientation from high speeds.

The NHRA term "holeshot" aside, it's not a stretch at all to say that drag racing and space travel are kindred spirits.

"Absolutely …," says Jeff Bordner, the site manager for the Windshear wind tunnel facility located not far from zMax Dragway. "Aerodynamics for automobiles all started with aerodynamics for aerospace."

Higginbotham, who logged more than 308 hours in the space shuttle Discovery, said she actually experienced a bigger speed sensation from a 149 mph trip down zMax Dragway in a two-seat dragster from Doug Foley's Drag Racing School than a shuttle launch.

"That was incredible," Higginbotham says as she exits the dragster. "The speed at which we took off was wonderful. It actually was a little more exhilarating than the speed of taking off in a shuttle."

More exhilarating? Hard to imagine. But this is from a woman who has traveled 17,500 mph -- a trip around the earth every 90 minutes, to put that into perspective -- in space.

"I think we've got them covered through about 320 mph," says Tasca, who has a better understanding of what an astronaut experiences than most of his peers, having flown in a shuttle simulator. "It's all over after that."

Those attending this weekend's NHRA Four-Wide Nationals probably never considered drag racing and the space program in the same thought. The same goes for many competitors.

"Really?" says Spencer Massey, who won the first four-wide exhibition race at zMax Dragway in 2009, when told of Higginbotham's drag racing experience. "That's crazy."

It really isn't, when you think about it. A shuttle can take up to five seconds to reach 100 mph. It's almost like the whole thing is happening in slow motion.

A Top Fuel dragster can reach 100 mph in under a second and a top speed of about 320 mph in under four seconds. Makes the 215 mph NASCAR drivers experienced at a recent tire test at Michigan International Speedway seem mundane.

"I've been with [Sprint Cup champion] Tony Stewart and other world-class NASCAR drivers, and the biggest fear that any of those pro guys have getting into a fuel car is not that they can't drive it," Tasca says. "It's accelerating quicker than anything you're accustomed to.

"From the standpoint of 320 mph, there is nothing on the planet, period, that can out-accelerate us. Not even an F-18 Super Hornet off a catapult launch from a carrier. They can't even get close to us."

The shuttle needs about 30 minutes to reach orbital speed, or about the time it takes Tasca to complete a race, take a shower, eat a meal and visit the restroom.

[+] EnlargeJoan Higginbotham
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty ImagesJoan Higginbotham, left, was a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery commanded by Mark Polansky in 2006.

A Top Fuel driver also will experience more G-forces than an astronaut, a maximum of 5 to 6 compared to about 3.5 in a shuttle.

"If we didn't have seat belts on you'd see the drivers go right through the windshields of the car [when the parachutes come out to stop the car]," Tasca says. "That's when you really sense how fast you're going."

It takes about six minutes, right before you hit zero gravity, to feel the maximum G-forces in a shuttle.

"And it feels like an elephant sitting on your chest," says Higginbotham, who didn't come close to that in her eight-second journey down the drag strip.

Yet another similarity.

"A good friend of mine says it's almost like having an 18-wheeler rear-end your car going 100 mph while you're at a stop sign," Massey says of the G-forces felt in a Top Fuel car.

If that's the case, drag racers and astronauts are certifiably crazy. They do things most of us watching from the press box or grandstands can't imagine.

Or want to do.

"When you consider the conditions these guys operate in at those speeds, these are the most physically and mentally tough people you probably will ever come across," says Dr. Pat Moyer, the associate professor for the department of physics and optical science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Those kind of conditions are very difficult."

And let's not forget the noise factor. Four Top Fuel dragsters with a combined 32,000 horsepower taking off at the same time will rival a shuttle launch any day.

According to a 2007 study published by "Science and Nature," a shuttle launch produces 165-170 decibels of painful sound, which is why viewers are required to be at least a half-mile away. A Top Fuel launch produces 155-160 decibels.

In other words, wear ear plugs.

Heavy-duty ones.

And while you're watching, think about how similar this experience is to what astronauts experience on a shuttle launch. It'll make you appreciate the power being unharnessed even more, without having to drive all the way to the Kennedy Space Center.

Higginbotham certainly has a new appreciation for it, as do the 65 students and a few reporters.

"I've always wanted to do this," Higginbotham says. "I'm a happy camper now."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter