No matter how bad a golfer Mikhail Tyurin may be, he's now set a world record. Make that a universal record. Unless they play golf on Alpha Centauri, Tyurin has just hit the longest drive in the history of the sport -- the ball he hit will probably travel a million miles in Earth's orbit, though we'll never know for sure.
Tyurin is one of three crew members on the International Space Station. He and the Russian Space Agency were hired by a Canadian golf club manufacturer, Element 21 Golf, to use its six-iron for a publicity stunt.
While he and his American crewmate, Michael Lopez-Allegria, were making a routine spacewalk, Tyurin put a ball in a small metal bracket, braced his feet in a ladder on the outside of the Space Station -- and swung.
Let's generously say he made a chip shot. The ball went off to the right, barely visible in pictures transmitted to Houston.
"There it goes," he said through a translator. "And it went pretty far."
Very far. NASA has done some calculations, and said the ball will probably orbit Earth for two or three days, 16 orbits per day, 25,000 miles per orbit, before it falls into the atmosphere and burns up.
"It was an excellent shot," Tyurin told Mission Control. "I can still see it as a little dot moving away from us."
How much Element 21 paid the Russian Space Agency for the stunt nobody would say. Reports have circulated that it could have been as much as $5 million.
But a six-iron on the Space Station almost became an international incident. NASA, which is not allowed to take money for little diversions, was less than amused.
"This isn't the type of experiment that would typically be designed and conducted for the U.S. program," said Kirk Shireman, NASA's deputy program manager for the Space Station, during a news conference last week.
While trying to be polite, NASA had dozens of engineers working to make sure a golf ball couldn't go careering off in some odd direction and break something.
The agency finally compromised. A regulation golf ball weighs 1.6 ounces -- enough to put a dangerous hole in a bulkhead if it somehow looped around and hit the Space Station at high speed. Element 21 was ordered to make a ball a tenth as massive -- one that would weigh only as much as three paper clips on Earth.
"I'm glad to do it, as long as it's a safe thing to execute," said Shireman.
To top things off, it turns out that cosmonaut Tyurin had never even played golf. He had to be taught.
He brought three superlight balls and a video camera with him. He only used one. The spacewalkers had other work to do, and had lost valuable time while Tyurin struggled to brace himself for his shot heard around the world.
"The ball is the least of our concerns," Tyurin said. "It's me that is supposed to be positioned properly."