Conor Daly and J.R. Hildebrand

HOUSTON – The day-long tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center was barely an hour old and Dale Coyne Racing driver Conor Daly was already in awe. The Verizon IndyCar Series rookie had experienced only the first stop of his visit – a guided tour of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory with astronaut Drew Feustel – but it was enough for Daly to ponder a career change.

“Man,” he said quietly. “I wanna go to space.”

Conor Daly and J.R. HildebrandThe sentiment was shared by fellow INDYCAR driver JR Hildebrand and KVSH Racing team co-owner James “Sulli” Sullivan, who joined Daly as they made multiple stops around JSC – NASA’s hub for human space flight for the last 50 years. The trio spent Monday bouncing around JSC’s robust campus on a behind-the-scenes tour that left all of its attendees abuzz.

“Ultimately,” Hildebrand concluded at the end of the tour, “you end the day feeling overwhelmed about how much amazing stuff you got to see.”

They experienced the International Space Station, albeit in virtual reality, in the Hybrid Reality Laboratory and got up close and personal with Robonaut 2 – a dexterous humanoid robot built and designed at JSC as part of a collaboration project between NASA and General Motors. NASA Flight Director Matt Abbott took the trio on a tour inside the floor of the Apollo-era Mission Operations Control Room – the room from which a bulk of the most extraordinary aerospace history was orchestrated – and astronaut Doug Hurley took them through the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, which housed real-world replicas of the International Space Station and space shuttles.

During what was an otherwise out-of-this-world experience, the drivers felt most at home during a ride in NASA’s Modular Robotic Vehicle (MRV) – an electric vehicle with a zero-degree turning radius that is effectively a drift car minus the tire smoke. Hildebrand, an experienced drift racer, has been working recently at Stanford University with autonomous and electric cars and was particularly intrigued by the MRV.

“From a motorsports perspective, to see an area like this that has a lot more free reign is particularly interesting,” Hildebrand said. “My life recently (at Stanford) has been filled with totally weird automotive experiences and the MRV fit totally in line with that.”

But for Daly, Hildebrand and Sullivan, the highlight of the day didn’t come on wheels.

While touring the floor of the current NASA Mission Control center, the three INDYCAR guests got much closer to space than any had planned. Abbott handed over a phone and told the group they’d be making a live call with astronauts Tim Kopra, Jeff Williams and Tim Peake, who are stationed aboard the real International Space Station orbiting some 250 miles above the earth.

Daly mustered a single question to kick off the call, but was unable to contain his enthusiasm while listening to the astronauts discuss their daily routine aboard the ISS.

Conor Daly and J.R. HildebrandThe call continued for the better part of 10 minutes, as everybody took turns asking questions and telling the astronauts about the Verizon IndyCar Series and the upcoming 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The conversation flowed unexpectedly well as the similarities between drivers and astronauts were evident. Abbott, who’s been a NASA Flight Director since 2000, said it was one of the best calls he’s experienced.

“The interaction with the crew was great,” he said. “There was a rapport there and that’s what made it kind of special.”

Abbott wasn’t alone in noticing the camaraderie.

“Right away we were able to find common ground on things that we do compared to things that they do,” said Hildebrand, entered in both May races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Ed Carpenter Racing. “Coming from the motorsports community, there is so much crossover in terms of the way that things happen at NASA.”

“This is probably one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Daly, visibly at a loss for words, told the astronauts. “Thanks for taking the time.”

The admiration was reciprocated.

“That says a lot coming from a race car driver,” astronaut Kopra replied from the ISS. “This is pretty darn cool.”