On February 6, 1971, astronaut and golfer Alan Shepard turned the Apollo 14 landing site into a driving range.
Apollo 14 commander Shepard was the first American astronaut in space, but today he’s almost as well known as the first — and so far, only — person to hit a golf ball on the Moon. Just before leaving the lunar surface in 1971, he attached a 6-iron golf club head to the foldable shaft of a lunar soil sampler and whacked two golf balls out into the gray lunar distance. Like a lot of spaceflight equipment, the 6-iron (a club typically used to hit the ball longer distances, in the 130-210 yard range) had been specially modified to fit onto the soil sampler; Shepard paid for the modified 6-iron himself, although there’s no record of how much it cost him.
Like all golfers, Shepard couldn’t resist a bit of boasting. “Miles and miles and miles,” he declared as he watched the second shot sail away on its long arc across the lunar surface. On the Moon, with no air resistance and only about a sixth of Earth’s gravity, it’s technically possible to hit a golf ball for miles. Forbes contributor Ethan Siegel calculated that an expert lunar golfer who hit the ball at precisely the right speed and angle could make a 2.5 mile (3,948 meter) shot, keeping the ball in flight for a little over a minute. But Shepard, swinging one-handed in a stiff, bulky 1970s spacesuit, didn’t have a shot at that kind of precision.
In fact, he took two swings at the first ball, because the first swing connected with “more dirt than ball” on the first try, as he says in NASA’s video; that first ball came to rest in nearby Javelin crater — named for astronaut Ed Mitchell’s own parting shot, a javelin-toss of the mission’s solar collector wind staff. Shepard later said that the second ball flew about 200 yards before landing near some scientific instruments the astronauts were leaving behind. That would have been an impressive shot on Earth, where the current record is 515 yards (set by Mike Austin in 1974, three years after Apollo 14), professionals still strive for 300-yard shots, and Golf Digest reported in 2017 that the median driving distance for golfers is 219.44 yards. On the Moon, it’s a record that’s gone unchallenged for 48 years.
A space-age urban legend claims that Shepard smuggled the golf balls and 6-iron head aboard the Apollo 14 spacecraft, hidden under a sock in his personal gear. It wouldn’t be first time an astronaut snuck something past NASA — John Young caused havoc on the 1965 Gemini 3 mission with crumbs from his smuggled corned beef sandwich, although at least he offered to share with crewmate Gus Grissom. But Shepard’s golf gear came aboard with permission from Manned Spaceflight Center director Bob Gilruth, although it took a lot of convincing.
“Being a golfer, I was intrigued before the flight by the fact that the ball, with the same club hit speed, will go six times as far,” Shepard told a C-SPAN interviewer in 1998, shortly before his death. “I thought, what a neat place to whack a golf ball.” (The discussion of the lunar golf adventure starts around 1:02:25.)
He pitched it to Gilruth as a cool moment of science outreach for the public, and he paid for the modified six-iron head and the two golf balls himself, “at no cost to the taxpayer.” Apollo astronauts were allowed to take 5 pounds of personal gear each into space aboard the Command Service Module, and they could take half a pound each to the lunar surface aboard the Lunar Module, but those items had to be approved by NASA, and Gilruth was skeptical about Shepard’s golf idea. He worried that it would look flippant and embarrass the agency.
“The thing that finally convinced Bob was I said, ‘Boss, I’ll make a deal with you. If we have screwed up, if we have had equipment failures, anything has gone wrong on the surface where you are embarrassed, or we are embarrassed, I will not do it. I will not be so frivolous,” Shepard told C-SPAN in 1998. “‘But I want to wait until the very end of the mission, stand in front of the television camera, whack these golf balls with this makeshift club, fold it up, stick it in my pocket, climb up the ladder, close the door, and we’re gone.’ So he finally said okay.” Shepard donated the 6-iron to the U.S. Golf Association Museum in 1974.
Those two golf balls aren’t even the strangest thing we’ve left behind on the Moon, but they’d make a valuable prize for future lunar looters, and at the moment, they aren’t legally protected. But even with Mitchell’s photo as a guide, finding them would be as difficult as… well, as finding a golf ball on the Moon. It would have been a little easier in 1971, when the bright white of the golf balls would have stood out against the dark gray of the lunar surface; Columbia University astronomer Arlin Cotts told the Washington Post in 2013 that a sharp-eyed observer probably could have spotted them from 30 feet away. After 48 years, however, Shepard’s record-setting golf balls have probably acquired some lunar camouflage, as radiation and micrometeorite impacts will have cracked, pitted, and darkened their surfaces. This so-called space weathering is one reason future scientists will probably be interested in examining the stuff we’ve left behind on other worlds, but it also makes it pretty easy to lose a golf ball on the Moon.
And in the long run, that may be for the best. In his C-SPAN interview, Shepard expressed pride in how his lunar golf stunt avoided commercialization. He and NASA even refused to name the manufacturer of the golf balls, and they later squashed one company’s efforts to claim credit.
“It’s been a totally fun thing,” he told the interviewer.”