We know golf is a popular sport and people travel far and wide to swing their clubs.
André Tolmé has so far taken it the furthest golfing across the entire length of Mongolia. He spent 90 days swinging his 3-iron golf club 12.170 times to complete the 2.3 million yards of his self-invented Mongolian golf course! [Full story here]
However, Alan Shepard took it one step further by playing golf on the Moon in 1971 during the Apollo 14 space mission to the moon. It gave him lasting fame and made him the inventor of both Lunar and Space Golf.
Apollo 14 lifted off on Jan. 31, 1971, with high hopes following the near-disaster that was the previous mission. This fourth manned moon shot is most famous as the mission where an astronaut played golf, but there were other adventures the crew encountered along the way. They searched for evidence of an asteroid that carved a large crater in the moon, and fought glitches and false alarms as they made their way to the Fra Mauro highlands.
Some at NASA good-naturedly referred to the Apollo 14 crew as “the three rookies.” They had just a few minutes of accumulated space experience among them.
Naval astronaut and commander Alan Shepard in 1961 became the second person – and the first American – in space, making a 15-minute, 28-second suborbital hop on the Mercury flight. NASA assigned him to the first Gemini mission, but Shepard developed symptoms of Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the middle ear, and had to stop flying on doctor’s orders. In 1968, Shepard underwent risky surgery to alleviate his symptoms; afterwards, he was successfully reassigned to flight status.
The three men were initially supposed to fly on the disastrous Apollo 13, but they were pushed back a mission to give everyone extra training, especially Shepard, who had just resumed active duty.
A launch glitch
Apollo 14 launched smoothly, aiming for the Fra Mauro highlands that Apollo 13 had hoped to reach. However, the astronauts ran into trouble as they were preparing to leave Earth’s orbit. Therefore landing on the moon didn’t come easily for the astronauts, either. Antares’ – the lunar lander – radar did not work until almost the last minute; it would violate NASA’s rules if Antares could not calculate its distance to the moon. Once that was sorted out, Shepard made an on-target landing making him, at age 47, the fifth and oldest person to walk on the Moon.
Shepard’s first words when he walked on the surface were, “It’s been a long way, but we’re here.” Mitchell scrambled down after him and the two got busy setting up experiments on the surface of the moon.
To help them carry more rocks and equipment, for the first time the crew had a small handcart that they carefully wheeled around the surface. Sixty-nine miles above Mitchell and Shepard, Roosa took pictures of the moon, working through his assigned list of scientific targets.
Apollo 14’s prime geologic target was Cone Crater. The crew planned to climb the slope, reach the rim — which was 300 feet (91 meters) above the landing site — and then look for rocks that could have flown up from the moon’s bedrock after a meteor smashed into the surface millions of years before.
The astronauts found the climb harder than expected. Rocks littering the slope forced them to carry the cart, and the steep climb meant they had to rest often. Mission Control asked the astronauts for updates on how close they were to the rim; the astronauts guessed they were nearby, but it was hard to say for sure with the lack of landmarks to steer by.
Eventually they ran out of time and needed to move on. When the pictures were analyzed later, geologists estimated the astronauts missed the rim by a mere 100 feet.
Hitting golf balls
This was the first mission to successfully broadcast color television pictures from the surface of the Moon, using a vidicon tube camera.
On February 6, 1971, just before Apollo 14 prepared to head home,Shepard had a small surprise for the television audience watching them. He had smuggled a Wilson six-iron golf club head inside his space suit to the moon together with a “little white pellet that’s familiar to millions of Americans” aka a golf ball.
Shepard used the Wilson six-iron head attached to a lunar sample scoop handle to become the first man to drive a golfball on the Moon.
Mission control offered a few pointers on form after his first attempt — “You need to bend your knees a little more, keep your head down” — to which Shepard rejoined: “I’m wearing a spacesuit!”
Due to the thick gloves and the stiff spacesuit Shepard was forced to swing the club with one hand. Due to this extra handicap it took Shepard two swings before he connected his club with the ‘little white pellet’in front of the camera. Seemingly unsatisfied with his first shot, which landed into a nearby crater, Shepard dropped another ball to the ground. He drove the second one, as he jokingly put it, “miles and miles and miles away”.
Here follows the exact NASA transcript of the event
135:08:17 Shepard: (Facing the TV) 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. (Pause)
135:08:53 Mitchell: You got more dirt than ball that time.
135:08:58 Shepard: Got more dirt than ball. Here we go again.
135:09:01 Haise: That looked like a slice to me, Al.
135:09:03 Shepard: Here we go. Straight as a die; one more. (Long Pause) 135:09:20 Shepard: Miles and miles and miles.
He was exaggerating a bit on the distance, but with no atmosphere and hence no air resistance, even a one-handed swing sent the first golf ball sailing about 200 meters, roughly the length of two football fields. Shepard did even better on the second golf ball, which traveled a good 400 meters (1312.34 feet, almost 500 yards, or five football fields).
Alan Shepard’s lunar golf plans had been kept a well-guarded secret beforehand. 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 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.
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.
“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.”
In a 1991 interview, Shepard told how he had brought a collapsible golf club — technically a Wilson six-iron head affixed to the handle of a lunar sample scoop — aboard the spacecraft. “The deal I made with the boss was that if things were messed up on the surface, I wouldn’t play with it, because we would be accused of being too frivolous,” he said. “But, if things had gone well, which they did, then the last thing I was going to do … was to whack these two golf balls.”
And those two golf balls are still on the moon. NASA gave the makeshift “space golf club” to comedian Bob Hope as a souvenir.
After this golf stunt, Apollo 14 splashed down and landed on Earth Feb. 9. After the ruckus Apollo 13 caused, Apollo 14 helped the space program regain its confidence ahead of the most challenging missions yet: those with a lunar rover.
In 1994 Shepard published a book with two journalists, Jay Barbree and Howard Benedict, called Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon.
The book generated some controversy for use of a staged photo purportedly showing Shepard hitting a golf ball on the Moon. The book was also turned into a TV miniseries in 1994
After his lunar golf escapade Shepard never went to space again (he was already 47 at the time of Apollo 14, the oldest astronaut in the program), but he did become a successful businessman. He died in 1998 from leukemia. But his legacy lives on.