Golfing The Moon
One small swing for man, one giant swing for mankind
Some 52 years after Alan Shepard golfed on the moon, NASA is heading back to the surface of our celestial neighbor with the Artemis III program.
As a new generation of astronauts prepares for a landing mission in 2026, could Shepard’s sporting legacy in outer space be expanded with a football toss, a baseball swing, or a soccer kick?
It’s probably the last item on NASA’s list of priorities, but so was Shepard’s playful lunar experiment on February 6, 1971 before Apollo 14 brought the crew back home.
Shepard was only the 5th person in history to walk the moon but more exciting for golfing earthlings, he was the first to swing a makeshift 6-iron against the bleak landscape.
That original golf club is housed on display at the USGA Golf Museum & Library located in Liberty Corner, New Jersey.
Along with Bobby Jones’ putter ‘Calamity Jane II’ and Ben Hogan’s 1-iron, the ‘Moon Club’ is one of the most popular items exhibited at the museum.
The club Shepard used was a Wilson Staff Dyna-Power 6-iron head attached to a collapsible tool that was designed to scoop lunar rock samples.
The 47-year-old golf enthusiast got the idea of knocking a ball on the moon from comedian Bob Hope, an avid golfer who was visiting NASA headquarters in Houston to prepare for a television special on the Apollo flight crew.
“Being a golfer, I was intrigued. I thought, what a neat place to whack a golf ball,” he told a NASA interviewer in February, 1998, just 5 months before he died.
But when Shepard initially inquired about the idea, Manned Spacecraft Center director Bob Gilruth answered, “Absolutely no way.”
Not only was space exploration a serious endeavor with an expensive price tag- $25 Billion on the tax payer- but the failed mission of Apollo 13 to reach the moon less than a year earlier still hung over a budget-conscious Congress.
And then there was the weight limitation on the 225,000-mile journey. “Since Shepard couldn’t bring a golf club as part of his personal kit, he repurposed one of the tools taken on board,” says Steven Garber from the NASA History Division.
He finally got permission and promised not to try his test if anything went wrong in the mission. For that reason, he waited until all the other tasks were successfully completed.
Shepard asked the pro at River Oaks Country Club in Houston to fashion a clubhead, which he then took to the Technical Services division at NASA for finishing touches.
Along with the clubhead, he snuck 2 golf balls aboard the spacecraft in a tube sock. For years, in order to keep his out-of-this-world golf shot from being commercially exploited, Shepard never revealed the brand of the balls.
It’s one thing planning an intergalactic golf outing, but another to execute swings wearing a bulky space suit with an oxygen tank. He practiced on terra firma in a nearby fairway, reportedly taking one-handed bunker shots in full gear.
Shepard was no stranger to space flights. The naval aviator-turned-astronaut was already in the history books when he became the first American to travel to space in 1961.
On Apollo 14, NASA’s 3rd human visit that landed on the moon, he commanded a 3-man crew that included module pilots, Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell. They blasted off on January 31, 1971 and landed on the moon on February 5th.
The crew spent a total of 33½ hours on the lunar surface, including 2 moon-walk explorations of about 4½ hours each, collecting rock samples and running experiments.
Once their tasks were done, Shepard was ready for his surprise. He attached the 6-iron to the handle of the sample collection tool and turned to the TV camera that was beaming his image to Earth.
The following exchange took place among Shepard, Mitchell, and Haise (Houston communicator):
Shepard: “Houston…you might recognize what I have in my hand as the handle for the contingency sample return; it just happens to have a genuine 6-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 2 hands but I’m going to try a little sand-trap shot here.”
He takes his 1st swing, but it misses and kicks up moon dust.
Mitchell: “You got more dirt than ball that time.”
Shepard: “Got more dirt than ball. Here we go again.”
He takes his 2nd swing and the ball sputters 2-3 feet.
Haise: “That looked like a slice to me.”
Shepard: “Here we go, straight as a die. One more.”
He connects on his 3rd shot and sends the ball on a low trajectory into a crater.
He then drops a second ball and meets it on a sweeter spot, sending the projectile into the deep recesses of the moon.
Shepard: “Miles and miles and miles.”
Haise: “Very good, Al.”
About 30 minutes later, the crew closed the module hatch in preparation for takeoff, leaving both balls behind and the sand-trap unraked. They returned safely to Earth on February 9th.
Shepard’s 4 swings on 2 balls wasn’t exactly a Jack Nicklaus moment, but a lighthearted experiment to showcase the gravitational difference between the Earth and the moon, which has 1/6 the pull and no atmospheric drag.
Needless to say, shot-tracking technology wasn’t available at the time but a high-resolution scan in later years put the distance of his first ball at 24 yards and his second at about 40 yards.
Shepard’s “miles and miles” hyperbole wasn’t necessarily an exaggeration if conditions were ripe for smacking balls on the moon.
Astronomy Magazine (4/5/22) wrote that Bryson DeChambeau’s 2021 average ball speed of 191 mph, launched at an ideal angle of 45 degrees, would travel 2.76 miles in lunar gravity.
Back home, the crew of Apollo 14 made the obligatory visit to the White House where President Richard Nixon commended Shepard- and the ‘first celestial hole-in-one’- by inducting him into the ‘distinguished order of lunar duffers.’
The space golfer retired as a Rear Admiral from the Navy and from NASA in 1974. That year, he donated his Moon Club to the USGA during a U.S. Open ceremony at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York.
Shepard died on July 21, 1998 and his ashes, along with those of his wife, were scattered by a Navy helicopter over the water in front of their home in Pebble Beach.
Following Apollo 14, three more missions landed astronauts on the moon with the last one being Apollo 17 (December, 1972). Though, heavy on scientific exploration, there were no lighthearted sporting moments to entertain us down on Earth.
Hopefully, Artemis III will surprise us with a few.
(Submitted by Cary Heinz, retired school teacher from Indiana)
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