NASA Meets the Big Game: Five Things Space and Football Have in Common

As Super Bowl LI in Houston approaches and players, coaches and a host of personnel behind the scenes prepare for the big game in Space City, NASA remains on the cutting edge of human space exploration, setting its sights on the journey to Mars. A football player’s journey to the end zone, though, has a lot more in common to space exploration than one might think. Here are five similarities.


Football players must be quick and powerful, honing the physical skills necessary for their unique positions. In space, maintaining physical fitness is a top priority, since astronauts will lose bone and muscle mass if they do not keep up their strength and conditioning, which will result in a reduced capacity to work in space.

On the International Space Station, astronauts work out about two hours a day and use three unique pieces of exercise equipment. They run on a treadmill with harnesses that hold them to its surface to maintain cardiovascular health, work out on a resistive exercise device that simulates free-weight exercises on Earth to keep up their strength and ride a type of exercise bike for cardiovascular and aerobic conditioning.

NASA is also developing smaller exercise devices for astronauts on longer missions to deep space, where equipment space is limited. Astronauts in Orion will use a device about the size of a large shoe box for both aerobic activity and strength training. Another compact device called the Miniature Exercise Device-2 is currently being evaluated on the space station.


Sustaining peak performance through a multi-month season requires players to pay close attention to what they eat. Similarly, astronauts in space must maintain a balanced diet to stay physically and mentally sharp during their missions. However, space poses unique challenges to maintaining optimum nutrition, such as the need to minimize not only the weight of food, but the packaging and trash volume.

Space station crew members have about 200 options to choose from, shipped to the orbital laboratory aboard cargo vehicles. NASA also is working on ways to feed the crew on longer missions, including a months-long journey to Mars that could last about 1,000 days, including transit time. The space station vegetable production system is helping to determine how to regularly grow fresh vegetables in space, and astronaut Shane Kimbrough recently started the third such investigation aboard the station. Scientists are developing new high-calorie food bars to reduce the amount of weight astronauts will have to carry on missions in the Orion spacecraft. Scientists are also looking at packaging food items to keep them edible and nutritious in conditions where there are temperature fluctuations, such as on the surface of Mars.


During football games, calling plays and relaying information from coaches on the sidelines or in the booth to players on the field is essential. Coaches communicate directly with quarterbacks and a defensive player between plays via radio frequencies. They must have a secure and reliable system that keeps their competitors from listening in and also keeps loud fan excitement from drowning out what can be heard. Likewise, reliable communication with astronauts in space and robotic spacecraft exploring far into the solar system is key to NASA’s mission success.

A radio and satellite communications network allows space station crew members to talk to ground-based control centers, and for those centers to send commands to the orbital complex. The space station has multiple space-to-ground communications channels that are in near-constant use to allow for voice, video or data transmissions. With hundreds of scientific investigations and technology demonstrations taking place on the space station, this communication is essential to maintaining the space station’s primary function as a research laboratory and is also critical for crew safety. In noisy conditions, players and coaches also use good old-fashioned hand signals to communicate, which is also a technique employed by space-walking astronauts as a backup to radio communications. When humans reach Mars, communications with the ground will take between seven and 22 minutes to go one way from Earth to the Red Planet (that’s a serie).

NASA’s Deep Space Network is an international array of giant radio antennas in California, Spain and Australia that supports interplanetary spacecraft missions, plus a few that orbit Earth. It’s the largest and most sensitive scientific telecommunications system in the world.

Innovative Technology

The days of bulky pads and jersey materials have given way to lightweight materials and innovative technologies that improve safety and allow players to move better. A host of NASA technologies have been adapted for use in sports.

A former NASA engineer invented a treadmill that was licensed to a company that transformed the technology into an enclosed treadmill that uses air pressure to help patients feel up to 80 percent lighter, easing discomfort during rehabilitation. The anti-gravity treadmills are now used by professional sports teams and others to train and speed up recovery after injuries.

To monitor the body temperature of astronauts during spaceflight, NASA teamed up with Johns Hopkins University in the 1980s to develop an ingestible thermometer pill. A commercially available version of the pill has been used by sports teams to detect elevated core body temperature. This NASA spinoff is also used to help keep soldiers, firefighters and first responders safe in dangerous environments.

Included in the recovery regimen for certain football injuries is cold therapy, the use of liquid cooling in a compression garment to reduce swelling and increase blood circulation in the targeted area. An industry-leading provider of these therapeutic garments was founded by a NASA scientist who worked on similar cooling garments for spacesuits.


Some say football is the ultimate team sport, and space exploration is no different. Landing robotic rovers on Mars, sending probes to Jupiter and past Pluto, building the powerful James Webb Space Telescope, operating the space station and developing new spacecraft and rockets for deep-space exploration requires the work of thousands of people behind the scenes who dedicate their time, energy and abilities to executing successful missions in space. From engineers who develop hardware and software to enable spacecraft to function to the many people who keep NASA centers running, everyone plays a role in successfully exploring far into the solar system.

Mission control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, for example, supports the International Space Station seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year—keeping a constant watch on the crew’s activities and monitor spacecraft systems. These highly trained flight controllers have the skills needed to closely monitor and maintain increasingly complex expeditions and respond to unexpected events. Football teams have a similar all-hands-on-deck approach, relying not only on their coaching staff and players but also on trainers, front-office staff and many others behind the scenes to win games.

Editor: Jason Roberts

Photo Credit: NASA

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