Alan Shepard’s road to the Moon was not a straightforward one, so you can’t blame him for wanting to have a little fun on the lunar surface. He joked in later life that he was probably better known as ‘the astronaut who played golf on the Moon’ than he was as the first American in space.
He made that pioneering first flight in May 1961, but was grounded a couple of years later after experiencing repeated bouts of dizziness, nausea, tinnitus, and vertigo. He was diagnosed with Ménière’s Disease, a disorder of the inner-ear. He wasn’t even allowed to pilot a jet on his own without having someone else flying with him to take over in case he was incapacitated.
After spending the next six years doing a desk job as Chief of the Astronaut Office, he underwent an experimental and risky surgery in Los Angeles in 1969 that successfully relieved him of the symptoms and allowed him to be restored to full flight status. He was subsequently named commander of Apollo 14, which launched in late January 1971.
Apollo 14’s journey to the Moon wasn’t the easiest either, running into several technical problems that could have caused it to be aborted prematurely. Despite this, Shepard managed the most accurate landing of any Apollo mission and, at 47, became the oldest person to reach Earth’s nearest neighbour.
Towards the end of his and crewmate Ed Mitchell‘s second and final walk on the Moon, and with their film camera trained on them, Shepard briefly disappeared from view.
When he returned, it was fairly clear that he was holding something that, to all intents and purposes, looked like a golf club.
Addressing the TV camera, Shepard said, “You might just recognise 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.”
The contingency sample collector was used by the commander of each Moon landing to pick up a small handful of lunar soil almost as soon as they set foot on the surface. If for some reason Mission Control decided they couldn’t stay and needed to leave immediately, it would ensure they would still have something to bring back with them to show for their trip.
Bringing a real golf club hadn’t been an option for Shepard. NASA gave each astronaut a personal preference kit (PPK) in which they could bring personal items, but it was restricted by both size and weight. Shepard instead had the head of a golf club specially made for him that could be easily snapped onto the end of the contingency sample collector even while wearing stiff and cumbersome gloves. While out on the surface of the Moon he had it stowed in the leg pocket of his spacesuit.
Also in the pocket were a few golf balls, which he dropped down onto the lunar surface.
“Unfortunately the suit is so stiff [that] I can’t do this with two hands, but I’m going to try a little sand-trap shot here,” he said.
He lined up the shot and gave it a swing.
“You got more dirt than ball that time,” Ed Mitchell commented.
“Got more dirt than ball,” Shepard echoed. “Here we go again.”
He swung for a second time with a second golf ball and only grazed it.
Shepard’s final swing connected solidly and launched the ball for what he said was, “Miles and miles and miles!”
That was a bit of an exaggeration.
Imaging specialist Andy Saunders recently calculated the true distance that the balls flew based on high-res scans of the original film – the one that went the furthest landed no more than 36 metres away.
Still, considering the stiffness of the Apollo spacesuits and the fact that the astronauts often couldn’t even see their feet makes it impressive that Shepard even managed to hit them.
Shepard never publicly revealed which brand of golf ball he used. This was partly to avoid being accused of commercialisation, and partly because he didn’t want to be dragged into an advertising campaign of any sort.
He brought the makeshift club back to Earth with him and gifted it to the US Golf Association Hall of Fame in New Jersey.