The lunar golf club: Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects No.99

Astronaut Alan Shepard produced a six-iron and a golf ball during his televised moonwalk in 1971

Rhodri Mardsen
Saturday 06 February 2016 01:40
Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard is seen playing golf on the moon in 1971
Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard is seen playing golf on the moon in 1971

Forty-five years ago today, astronaut Alan Shepard produced a piece of metal from his pocket and made an announcement to everyone watching his moonwalk on television. "I just so happen to have a genuine six-iron," he said, "and… a little white pellet that's familiar to millions of Americans." He then dropped a golf ball to the ground.

His spacesuit prevented him from taking a traditional swing, but he made a couple of one-handed swipes. The first attempt was "more dirt than ball", but the second ball, Shepard reckoned, went for "miles and miles and miles", on account of the moon's thin atmosphere and weak gravitational pull.

It wasn't miles and miles – just 400 metres, in fact – but Shepard had good reason to feel pleased. He'd first had the idea when Bing Crosby had paid a visit to Nasa while carrying a golf club, but his suggestion didn't go down well with his bosses. "The deal I made," Shepard later recalled, "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."

But things had gone well. Shepard seized his chance. The club was collapsible; the shaft was actually the handle of a lunar sample scoop, while the Wilson six-iron head had been brought to the moon in one of Shepard's white socks. The two balls he hit are still on the lunar surface, but the lunar club came back to Earth and is now on display at the US Golf Association Museum in Far Hill, New Jersey. (The sock, signed by Shepard, is "kept in storage".)

How good a shot was it? Well, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel has calculated that if Shepard had made a decent connection, he could have hit the ball 2.5 miles. Basically, he flubbed it.

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