Tiger Woods may rule the golf course here on Earth, but when it comes to extraterrestrial golfing, Alan Shepard reigns supreme. On Feb. 6, 1971, he became the first person to hit a golf ball on the moon, just before reboarding the Apollo 14 spacecraft to return home.
Shepard was the second person, and the first American, to be in space during an early Mercury flight in 1961, although the mission did not achieve orbit (nor was it meant to do so). Alas, an inner-ear disease grounded the NASA astronaut for the next five years, until surgery corrected the problem.
That’s when NASA assigned him to command the Apollo 14 mission. (Actually, originally he’d been meant to command the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, but a last-minute swap of teams to allow Shepard’s crew more time to train sent James Lovell, Ken Mattingly and Fred Haise on that now famous “successful failure.”)
In a 1991 interview, Shepard told of how he brought a collapsible golf club — technically a Wilson six-iron head affixed to the handle of a lunar sample scoop — aboard the spacecraft. “The deal I made with the boss 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,” he said. “But, if things had gone well, which they did, then the last thing I was going to do … was to whack these two golf balls.”
On Feb. 6, 1971, Shepard became the fifth person to walk on the moon, and true to his plans, just before ascending back into the lunar module, he took out the golf club and hit two balls. Mission control offered a few pointers on form after his first attempt — “You need to bend your knees a little more, keep your head down” — to which Shepard rejoined: “I’m wearing a spacesuit!”
Here, watch the whole sequence, courtesy of NASA (transcript after the video):
He was exaggerating a bit on the distance, but with no atmosphere and hence no air resistance, even a one-handed swing sent the first golf ball sailing about 200 meters, roughly the length of two football fields. Shepard did even better on the second golf ball, which traveled a good 400 meters (1312.34 feet, almost 500 yards, or five football fields).
Those two golf balls are still on the moon. NASA gave the makeshift “space golf club” to comedian Bob Hope as a souvenir. Shepard never went to space again (he was already 47 at the time of Apollo 14, the oldest astronaut in the program), but he did become a successful businessman. He died in 1998 from leukemia. But his legacy lives on.