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Golf swing outside space station follows moon, shuttle shots

November 22, 2006

— One more, and we'll have enough for a foursome.

International Space Station flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin became the world's third space golfer this evening as he took swing with a six iron at the start of a scheduled six- hour spacewalk.

"There it goes! And it went pretty far... I can still see it as a little dot that is moving away from us," Tyurin said after making connection on his first swing. The shot came just short of 7:00 p.m. CST as the ISS orbited 220 miles high above the northwest Pacific Ocean.

Space Station golf shot. Click here to enlarge and watch in pop-up window. (NASA TV)

Tyurin's orbital drive, made from just outside the Russian Pirs docking compartment, was made possible through a partnership between the Russian Federal Space Agency and the Canadian golf company Element 21. The six iron is from E21's new line of scandium clubs, a sturdy metal alloy also used on segments of the ISS. Two gold-plated scandium clubs were launched to the station in Fall 2005 along with ultra-light golf balls equipped for tracking and a special tee resembling a spring.

A golf novice, Tyurin took lessons on the ground and had been practicing his one-handed swing inside the station before today's slice. Cameras outside the ISS, including one specifically set for the golf shot, caught the swing for E21, which plans to use the footage in a commercial.

The golf ball was hit in the opposite direction that the ISS is traveling to insure there was no chance of recontacting the station. NASA estimates the ball will remain in space for only two to three days before buring up during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, though the Russian's predict they could remain in orbit for more than three years.

According to E21, their "golf shot around the world" is in part a tribute to the 35th anniversary of the first astronaut golf shot by Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard.

Shepard's secret shot

Unlike Tyurin's golf shot, which was highly publicized by E21 for most of the past year, Alan Shepard's lunar golf plans were kept a well-guarded secret. In fact, not even his daughters knew in advance what he had planned to cap his second and final excursion on the lunar surface.

"I thought my grandfather [Alan] Shepard [Sr.] had lost his mind, when he was woke me up so that I could watch my father hit golf balls on the moon! I had no idea that Daddy was going to do that," Laura Churchley, Shepard's first daughter, told collectSPACE in a recent interview.

The first American in space and fifth man to step foot on the Moon revealed his plans with the following words:

Houston, while you're looking that up, you might recognize what I have in my hand as the handle for the contingency sample return; it just so happens to have a genuine six iron on the bottom of it. In my left hand, I have a little white pellet that's familiar to millions of Americans. I'll drop it down. Unfortunately, the suit is so stiff, I can't do this with two hands, but I'm going to try a little sand-trap shot here.

It took Shepard two swings before he connected his club with the 'little white pellet'. Seemingly unsatisfied with his shot, Shepard dropped another ball to the ground and this time took glee in his drive. "Miles and miles and miles," Shepard exclaimed.

It was later estimated that Shepard's shots had traveled only 200 to 300 yards, but that was good enough to earn Shepard the title of first lunar golfer.

Even after Apollo 14 had returned to Earth and Shepard's secret was known by millions, there were still details that the moonwalker insisted on keeping confidential. Where as Tyurin's demonstration was focused on promoting the brand of equipment used, Shepard never offered a similar endorsement.

"He chose not to reveal the maker of the golf ball because he saw no reason for them to benefit from his actions. It was his idea, after all, not theirs," explained Churchley.

"The astronauts are/were government employees. Daddy did not want to take monetary advantage of his position on the government. He earned most of his money on his own, after he retired from the government."

That's not to say that Shepard, who died in 1999, would have necessarily disagreed with Tyurin's commercial golf outing.

"Alan Shepard would likely think it fun," said Ed Mitchell, Shepard's Apollo 14 fellow moonwalker to collectSPACE.

Churchley agrees.

"I think he would be pleased that they remembered what he did. He would have gotten a good laugh at what they are doing. He might have volunteered to do it for them."

The shuttle putter

In the 35 years that separate the lunar and station shots, at least one other astronaut has tried his swing in space.

Brian Duffy, commander of the 1996 shuttle Endeavour mission STS-72, was surprised by his crew mates with a specially-designed "shuttle putter" which was put to good use between tasks by using a golf ball and duct tape roll as a makeshift "hole".

Duffy's enthusiasm for golf as a pastime was well known and shared by at least one member of NASA's training team, Tim Terry, who designed the club and arranged for it and a ball to be "smuggled" on-board.

"It's much more difficult to putt in space than on Earth," Duffy admitted, according to the U.S. Golf Association.

"Here [on the ground] there are only two dimensions to worry about. In space, you can also miss up or down."

Lunar links and orbital country clubs

Comments made by E21 representatives have hinted at hopes to enable future golf outings on the space station. Whether they occur, only time and money will tell.

In the meantime, NASA has set its sights on returning to the Moon with their next generation spacecraft. Whether lunar golf will resume where Shepard left off may be the choice of the individual astronauts chosen for the flights.

According to Mitchell, future moonwalkers might choose new sports tailored specifically to their surroundings.

"I doubt that [golf] will flourish in the lunar environment, but perhaps something unique to that environment might."


Cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin prepares to hit a golf ball outside of the International Space Station. In his hand is a club provided by the Element 21 Golf Company, which paid for the demo. (NASA TV)

Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard uses a makeshift six iron to hit a "little white pellet" for "miles and miles." (NASA)

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