Take that, Tiger! Cosmonaut Tees Off
An astronaut on board the international space station is getting ready to tee off. If all goes as planned, the Russian cosmonaut will put on his bulky suit and step into the vacuum of space Wednesday night at about 6 p.m. ET. He'll carry a golf club, so he can whack some balls around the planet.
The stunt is happening 35 years after astronaut Alan Shepard famously knocked some balls around with a makeshift club on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission.
During a geological mission to collect moon rocks, he dropped a golf ball into the gray lunar dust.
"Unfortunately, the suit is so stiff, I can't do this with two hands," Shepard told Houston at the time, "but I'm going to try a little sand-trap shot here."
Shepard's colleagues good-naturedly mocked his first couple of swings.
"Looks like you got more dirt than ball that time," said one.
"That looked like a slice to me, Al," another commented.
But his next shot was perfect.
"There we go!" Shepard exclaimed. "Miles and miles and miles!"
Now, the ball didn't really soar for miles in the moon's low gravity. But tonight's drive from the space station should be a long shot.
"Once the ball is hit, it's going to orbit the Earth," says Nataliya Hearn, head of Element 21 Golf. "It's definitely going to be the world and space record in golf."
Element 21 sells clubs made out of a metal alloy developed by Russian aerospace scientists. A little more than a year ago, Hearn's team came up with this promotional stunt. She won't say how much they're paying the Russian space agency to tee-off in space, but she does say that NASA officials did not seem amused by the idea at first.
"[NASA] did give us a hard time," she says. The space agency's main worry was that the ball would swing around the planet and head back toward the station like a dangerous piece of space junk.
NASA officials discussed a scenario -- where the ball would come back around and puncture the orbiter -- last week during a deadpan press briefing. Kirk Shireman, deputy international space station program manager, repeatedly referred to the stunt as the Russian golf "task" or "experiment."
"This isn't a type of experiment that would typically be designed or conducted for the U. S. program," Shireman noted, "but if it's done by the Russians for their purposes, I'm glad to do it as long as it's a safe thing to execute."
Dozens of NASA safety experts have now signed off on the plan. The space station will be moving in one direction, and cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin plans to hit the ball the other way. The ball should end up miles from the station and will eventually burn up in the atmosphere.
Tyurin has been practicing his swing for months. He has tried it while wearing his space suit under water, and he's been putting inside the station as well. Rick Martino, director of instruction for the Professional Golf Association of America, gave the cosmonaut a little lesson before he went into space.
"He had played some hockey but he had never touched a golf club," says Martino. "And like many people taking up golf for the first time, it seemed strange."
It will be even stranger for Tyurin, since he's planning to swing in zero gravity. Martino notes that this creates special challenges.
"You have to tie the ball down or it will float away," he says. Plus, "you have to tie the player down."
Instead of perching on top of an ordinary tee, the golf ball will sit inside something that looks like a high-tech slinky. Tyurin will hook his feet under a ladder. His bulky suit means he'll only be able to make a one-handed shot.
Still, the ball will orbit Earth for either three days or three years, depending on whether you believe NASA or Element 21. Either way, Martino expects that golfers will watch the production on the Internet.
NASA's cameras won't be able to provide real-time closeups, so it won't look exactly like golf on ESPN. But officials at Houston's mission control promise that they'll speak in hushed tones as the cosmonaut lines up his shot.
There's no word, though, on whether Tyurin will yell "Fore!" before he sends the ball hurling toward the vast blue planet down below.
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