When the green flag drops at the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on February 17, 2008, it will travel just a few inches. But for the first car crossing the finish line 500 miles later, a different green flag awaits the winner with a few million miles to its history.
In fact, to even come close to matching the distance traveled by that green flag, the driver would need to climb back in his car and repeat the race another 9,000 times.
That's because NASA plans to fly three of the green flags on its next space shuttle mission, scheduled to launch in December, in celebration of its own 50th anniversary and the 50th year of NASCAR's Daytona 500, as first reported by the Orlando Sentinel.
The flags will be stowed aboard space shuttle Atlantis as it embarks on the STS-122 mission to the International Space Station where it will deliver the European science laboratory, Columbus. When the planned 11-day mission lands back on Earth, two of the flags will be returned to NASCAR, which in turn will present one to the winner of the Daytona 500 while placing the other on public display at the Florida racetrack.
The third flag will be kept by the space agency. "It will be used as a 50th anniversary commemorative piece," said NASA spokesperson John Yembrick in an interview with collectSPACE.com. "It may be given to the Smithsonian, we do not know yet."
NASA has listed the Daytona 500, which NASCAR bills as "The Great American Race," on its website's calendar of officially-recognized events that will mark the agency's founding 50 years ago on October 1, 1958. The inaugural Daytona 500 was run on February 22, 1959.
David Talley, spokesperson for the Daytona International Speedway, told collectSPACE.com that in addition to the flags, NASA is working with NASCAR on other crossover events, the logistics of which are still being finalized, but may include astronaut-driver promotions and, according to the Orlando Sentinel, an in-flight press event involving the shuttle crew and Daytona drivers.
"All of that is being discussed. We're in the early stages of planning," said Yembrick.
The three green flags will be flown as part of the STS-122 Official Flight Kit (OFK), a small package of mementos carried on each flight to award organizations that support the crew's success. During the previous shuttle mission in October, NASA flew a prop lightsaber in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Lucasfilm's "Star Wars" franchise.
According to Talley, this may be the first time NASA has collaborated with the Speedway and NASCAR to promote the Daytona 500, outside of ticket packages combining access to the racetrack and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. NASA has however, highlighted the use of its technology in the design of NASCAR race cars and the material used to protect their drivers.
"We have had a connection to NASCAR for some time," said NASA's News Chief at the Kennedy Space Center, Allard Beutel. "Flags are small, easy to fly. It's something easy we can do, and adds extra sentimental value for some people."
"It's another way to reach an audience we don't normally reach," Beutel told collectSPACE.com.
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