HOUSTON, March 6, 2006 -- It's not exactly the hallowed grass of Scotland's St. Andrews golf course. Temperatures will range from minus 150 degrees to 150 degrees in just 90 minutes, and there won't be a fairway in sight.
On July 31, cosmonaut Panel Vinogradov will play golf during a six-hour spacewalk on the International Space Station.
How do you hit a golf ball in zero gravity? Vinogradov will start by attaching a platform to the International Space Station. It has a tee shaped like an ice cream cone that will cradle the ball. He will then use a 6-iron to gently hit a gold-plated golf ball into orbit. It will be the longest drive ever hit, because this ball is expected to travel 2.1 billion miles before it plunges into the Earth's orbit and burns up in three years or four years.
It's a publicity stunt for golf-club manufacturer Element 21 and it's timed to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the first golf shot in space. Element 21 is paying the Russian Space Agency to have its cosmonaut hit the ball, but spokesmen for Element 21 and the Russian Space Agency declined to say how much money the stunt cost.
The Russian Space Agency has long been strapped for cash so it regularly sells seats -- or advertising -- on the Soyuz to anyone with a few million dollars to spare.
NASA administrator Mike Griffin bristled when reporters questioned the safety of playing golf for commercial reasons on the International Space Station.
"The space station partners have the right to propose and to conduct commercial activities on the station, provided that all appropriate safety considerations have been dealt with," Griffin said. "We are not at the end of that particular road as yet, but we will pursue it."
Golf in space isn't a done deal yet. Flight directors at the Johnson Space Center are still analyzing the golf proposal to make sure it will not jeopardize the International Space Station. Once a golf ball launches off the space station into orbit, it becomes space debris. Engineers are constantly watching the space station, and flight directors in Mission Control will change its orbit to dodge debris that could smash into it. Element 21, a Toronto-based golf-club manufacturer, developed the golf club that will be used during the spacewalk. It is made of an alloy called scandium used to build Russian MiGs and Russian segments of the International Space Station. The company's president and CEO, Nataliya Hearn, said scandium was lighter and stronger than titanium and graphite.
The golf clubs her company has developed have recently been approved for use by the USGA for use on the PGA Golf Tour. The club that Vinogradov will use is a gold-plated 6-iron -- and the golf balls he will hit are gold plated as well.
The golf club and balls were brought to the space station in September 2005 on one of the Russian supply ships that service it. The gold-plated golf club will be brought back to Earth either on a return trip by the space shuttle or on one of the Soyuz trips. Hearn said the club would be auctioned off to raise money for charity.
The golf ball can be tracked from Earth -- much like the SuitSat experiment that NASA launched from the space station last month. The batteries inside SuitSat -- a spacesuit converted into a temporary radio satellite -- failed so SuitSat fizzled just a few hours after it was launched. This golf ball can be tracked by laser, thanks to its gold plating.
Hearn said training a cosmonaut to play golf wasn't easy -- they're more used to playing hockey, she noted. The company worked with cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev when he was on the space station to figure out how this golf shot would be choreographed.
Golf in space isn't new. Thirty-five years ago, astronaut Alan Shepard Jr. became the first person to hit a golf ball on the moon -- a golf ball that is still sitting there. Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell spent 33½ hours on the moon, nine hours and 23 minutes trudging on the lunar surface, exploring and sifting lunar dust. It was hard work.
When the work was finished, Shepard pulled out two golf balls and unfolded a collapsible golf club specially made for the occasion. He became the first ever to hit golf shots on the moon, despite thick gloves and a cumbersome spacesuit that forced him to swing the club with only one hand.
The golf club used by Shepard is now on display at the USGA Golf House in Far Hills, N.J.