That Looked Like a Slice to me, Al

"If I hit it right, it's a slice. If I hit it left, it's a hook. If I hit it straight, it's a miracle!" 


This is my 100th post on Astronomical Returns! I've been writing for almost two years now, and it's been incredible to see how much the little space blog I started in the windowless backroom of a Wall Street investment bank has grown. To celebrate this milestone, I thought it'd be neat to rewrite my very first article, which was about Alan Shepard playing golf on the moon! And it's perfect because this week marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 14!

One year in at Evercore vs one year in at SpaceX! Different job, different coast, 100 articles later!

Even among the pantheon of American legends, Alan Shepard’s resume dwarfs most others’ accomplishments: the commander of the 3rd lunar landing was already the first American in space, flying on Mercury-Redstone 3 ten years prior, and before that he was a WWII Navy veteran who would eventually attain the rank of rear admiral. But in the world of golf, Shepard holds an achievement that not even the all-time greats like Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus could ever hope to accomplish: the first man to hit golf balls on the moon! On February 6, 1971, millions of people around the world tuned into their televisions and watched Alan Shepard turn the dusty lunar landscape into a driving range

After Shepard chunks and shanks the first two shots:

Edgar Mitchell (Lunar Module Pilot): "Hey, you got more dirt than ball!"

Fred Haise (Mission Control): "That looked like a slice to me Al!" 

Commander Shepard's next shot is a little better: "Here we go, straight as a die; one more"

Upon nailing the fourth shot: "Miles and miles and miles!!"

Contrary to what some people thought, Shepard did not have to smuggle the golf balls and sawed-off 6-iron into the Lunar Module. Each of the moonwalking astronauts were allowed to bring a few personal items to the surface (for example, Buzz Aldrin, a devout Christian, brought communion bread and wine). Shepard had actually conceived of the idea as a cool way to demonstrate lunar gravity after comedian Bob Hope visited NASA in Houston and brought a golf club with him to the facility. Still, it took quite a bit of convincing - Bob Gilruth, the director of the Johnson Space Center, was worried it would be a distraction and make the agency look goofy on what was supposed to be a grand scientific voyage. But Shepard assured Gilruth that he would pay for all the golf equipment himself (no cost to the taxpayer!) and that he would only bring it out at the very end of the mission if everything else had gone smoothly

Alan Shepard (left) and Bob Gilruth (right) in Mission Control together, taken during Apollo 10

To his credit, Shepard put a lot of effort into preparing for the lunar links; the last thing he wanted to do was make a fool of himself in front of millions of people while standing on the moon! Once he had NASA's approval, Shepard had some technicians at NASA help him attach the iron to the end of a collapsible aluminum and Teflon lunar sampling tool. Then, with club in hand, he brought his 200lb lunar EVA spacesuit to a nearby golf course and started practicing one-armed swings out of a bunker wearing the bulky garment! Frankly, if I had the chance of the lifetime to hit golf balls on the moon, I'd probably do the exact same thing

Shepard's famous Wilson Dyna-Power 6-iron moon club, now on display at the USGA Museum in New Jersey

Now golfers love to exaggerate about how far they can hit the ball; did Shepard make good on his remark about crushing it "miles and miles and miles"? In reality, he says his fourth and best shot on the moon flew about 200 yards, which is still pretty darn solid given he swung one-handed wearing the bulky Apollo A7L spacesuit! But apparently if you do the math, an unencumbered swing by a skilled golfer, which would probably fly just under 300 yards on Earth, could go as far as 2.5 miles on the Moon! And even better, despite Fred Haise's jokingly derisive comment about Shepard's shot looking like a slice, it's actually impossible to hook or slice a golf ball in the airless environment of the moon, since a ball's curve stems from the imbalance in air pressure caused by the direction of the ball's spin. For golfers like me who struggle to keep the ball in the fairway, that sounds like an absolute godsend. As if I needed another reason to want to go to the moon!

Shepard with his moon club, many years after Apollo 14

I've played golf for 20 years now (since I was 4!), which is why I've always loved this story about Apollo 14. And while I can hit the ball about 275 yards, in 50 years when I'm old and decrepit and can barely get it past the ladies' tee on Earth, maybe I'll hop in a spacecraft and take one last rip at 300 yards on the surface of the Moon!

TPC San Antonio, Christmas 2019

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