Saturday, April 10, 2010

Will we live the dream?

Stefan Martini
Mission 3, Moonbuggy 2010

Huntsville, April 9th, 2010


It's 5 in the morning when Steffi tries to wake me up gently. Despite the short night I'm quite awake. After a hearty breakfast we're on our way to the Space & Rocket Center. Upon arrival, we take the Moonbuggy straight to the welding machine to finally fix our handle bar. With a mix of metric and imperial tools we tweek away at an improvised solution. Then we're back at our booth and spend 15min warming up, 10min less than planned. Max changes the programme and warms us up with several scuttling exercises. We get on the buggy, get our energy drink and focus on the race.

5 minutes to go. Surprisingly I'm hardly excited at all. Nevertheless Max goes through the course with me mentally and tries to prepare me perfectly for the race. I'm glad to have a veteran like him in our team. Steffi who's behind me on the buggy can hardly keep quiet. She chats to anyone who passes by and keeps getting off the buggy. That's probably her way of dealing with the pressure.

Team 5 passes by. As we're directly next to the gate of the start, we can join Team 5, as we're ready to go. Someone from the official NASA team comes over and asks us whether we're ready. We agree and drive over to the spot where they evaluate whether you're complying with all the rules. Also, the buggy is folded up and carried a short distance. Then we get the first timed race. We have to get the buggy ready to start as fast as we can and sit in it with all buckles fastened. If you look at the video, I'm amazed myself that we managed to do it that quickly. In all our previous attempts we've managed about 8 seconds. But now we're full of adrenalin. The umpire measures an amazing 6 seconds. That's fantastic.

Motivated we proceed to the start. It's almost too swiftly for me. I almost can't focus on the course, but I'm glad we've done that before the race. After a short interview, it's time. Ready, set, go! We tread the pedals. Both wheels go into overdrive. We give less juice. At once there's the first obstacle, funnily enough the buggy flies over the first obstacle. The rest goes smoothly and we don't realise the remaining bumps. Then it's downhill, followed by a difficult obstacle which you need to take with a lot of speed. The problem is that there is a 90° hard shoulder straight afterwards and you can easily jump off track. That proved the buggy killer number one in previous years! A lot of rims gave up here in the past. Also because Steffi shouts "break!" from behind, I'm taking the hurdle with more respect. When it's behind us, I realise that the officials have made this quite a bit smoother than last year.

Now there's the horizontal part with a few pebbled tracks. After that there's another 90° curve with a hurdle. That means I have to aim to get into the curve in a wider berth to approach the hurdle directly and use the entire force of the drive to avoid falling of the side of the bump. As planned we pass the dirt bump. The track goes on uphill over two obstacles and along a couple of pistes into the crater. As in the final years, this is the most exhausting part in the middle of the race. I try to negotiate as many loose rocks as possible, since in the concrete crater it is in fact the rocks that make driving hard.

Then there are more curves with more or less difficult hurdles where I start feeling my legs. A sharp curve below the rocket and through to the final steep ascent. He're everyone's down to walking speed. That means you're exerting your final power reserves, if you have any left.

Then it's just downhill, over a couple of dirt hills back to the Shuttle. Here another few tricky hurdles await. There's a 4m long sandbank and dovetailing hills on which we've tailored the steering mechanism in our buggy perfectly. Nevertheless, we lose, as all the other teams, a lot of time here as the ground is soft an offers a lot of resistance.

That's why the final meters are pure torture. I remember that I'm supposed to honk the horn and enter the finish with Steffi, totally exhausted. Everything worked out and is still stable. My gutfeeling tells me that the race must have been good, around 4 minutes and therefore maybe a score in the front area of the field. I've given everything and can't even sit up straight when the NASA reporter is there to ask me questions. I try to answer but can't string a coherent sentence together, so she goes over to Steffi. She still has some strenght left and kann answer, at least in short sentences. The only thing I want to do is lie down. I unfasten my seat-belt, summon my last ounces of strength and sit down on the dewy grass, knees shaking. That my clothes get wet doesn't bother me. I notice how someone jumps on me with a great shriek. It's Steffi who announces amazedly that we were 3 seconds faster than the team of the Huntsville Technology Center who scored best last year. At once we wonder how long they need to fold up their vehicle. After a short while we get confirmation that we drove the annual track record with 3:31min and also needed 3 seconds less for the fold-up.

I'm absolutely speechless. We're first!!! And that despite of the fact that most of the best teams started before us. I'm proud of our achievement. But somehow I knew that the buggy had matured into a single unit with Steffi and myself in order to pull of a miracle and reward our hard work during the past years. The team gathers together around us, who're still on the grass, exhausted but elated. We can hardly believe it. The track record is about 3:15min. But as it will turn out later today, this isn't nearly reached.

On getting some strength, we're off back to our booth. Apparently the news spread through the grapevine, as there are congratulations from everywhere. A lot of people make a point of dropping by to congratulate us, and also when we move around the area we're met with beaming faces, some of whom are even German and wish us all the best in our mother tongue. It's so unbelievable how nice and open everyone is.

We spend the remaining long day in the area. We either go and see other buggies on their test drives, check out the rides or stroll through the museum. We regularly come back to the score tables on which we're leading for a long time. However, towards the end of the race we get the news that another team beat us by 3 seconds. Again we're asking ourselves immediately how long they needed to fold up the buggy. With a small delay, there are the news that they actually took 10 seconds longer. So we keep the first place until the end of the day and are overjoyed. Finally, we invite the other international teams for a little get-together to get this international community to further coordinate their collaborative efforts and to promote the Moonbuggy Race in the entire world.



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