Driving on the Moon

According to several sources, golfer John Daly, once considered the longest hitter on the PGA tour, holds the record for the longest golf drive, 806 yards, although it was on a runway at Los Angeles International Airport, meaning he benefitted from a good roll.

Were he alive today, astronaut Alan Shepard could have told Daly a thing or two about a good roll—but more on that later.

Although not as famous as his fellow astronaut, John Glenn, it was actually Shepard who, as part of America’s original civilian space program, Project Mercury, became the first American ever launched into space.  That was in 1961, but 10 years later Shepard also commanded the Apollo 14 lunar mission, which landed on the moon this week (Feb. 5) in 1971, making him the fifth American to walk on the moon.

Apollo 14 was an extremely historic mission, in part because it was the first to follow the nearly fatal Apollo 13 mission, which on April 13, 1970 (talk about “unlucky 13”), suffered an oxygen tank explosion, which knocked out the fuel cells that supplied power to the computers, which disabled the control systems, which seriously threatened the mission’s survival.  Fortunately, a herculean effort by both Mission Control in Houston and the Apollo 13 astronauts averted disaster and Apollo 13 returned safely to Earth.

Small wonder all eyes were subsequently on Apollo 14, which, other than a minor docking probe malfunction, was a complete success.  The lunar module landed within 100 feet of its target, and a special “modularized equipment transporter” — basically a space-age golf cart — enabled Shepard and astronaut Edgar Mitchell to drive around the moon’s surface and conduct experiments.  It also allowed them to collect many lunar samples, including moon rocks, some of which were estimated to be 5 billion years old.

But speaking of “space-aged golf carts” — and driving on the moon — Shepard was a fanatical golfer and, unbeknownst to anyone at Mission Control, he had smuggled inside his space suit two golf balls and a six-iron head, which he later attached to the handle of a lunar sample collection device.  At the end of his moon walk he teed up and drove the balls, as he put it, “miles and miles” due to the fact that the moon’s gravitational pull is about one-sixth of Earth’s.

Actually, due to the serious restrictions of hitting a golf ball in a space suit, he “sliced” the first shot and the second shot went maybe 400 yards.  Shepard then returned to the lunar module, returned to Apollo 14, and returned safely to Earth where he continued playing golf in his spare time, although he never hit a golf ball 400 yards again.