Wed. Sep 28th, 2022
This image consists of six photos taken with the Apollo 14 Lunar Module, enhanced and merged into a single panorama to show the landing scene, along with the location from which Alan Shepard hit two golf balls.  Also on the left are the two astronauts' PLSS' (life-support backpacks).
enlarge This image consists of six photos taken with the Apollo 14 Lunar Module, enhanced and merged into a single panorama to show the landing scene, along with the location from which Alan Shepard hit two golf balls. Also on the left are the two astronauts’ PLSS’ (life-support backpacks).

Fifty years ago this week, NASA astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. space history when he made a few waves on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission and successfully slammed two golf balls across the lunar surface. Space enthusiasts have debated how far that second ball has traveled for decades. It seems we now have an answer, thanks to the efforts of imaging specialist Andy Saunders, who digitally enhanced archive footage from that mission and used it to estimate the final resting places of the golf balls.

Saunders, who is working with the United States Golf Association (USGA) to commemorate Shepard’s historic achievement, announced his findings in a Twitter thread. Saunders concluded that the first golf ball to hit Shepard traveled approximately 24 yards, while the second golf ball traveled 40 yards.

Shepard’s penchant for brutal irreverence had occasionally surfaced during his successful pre-NASA naval career, most notably while serving as a test pilot at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. He was nearly court-martialed for looping over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge during a test flight, but luckily his superiors intervened. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded NASA in 1959, Shepard was selected as one of seven Mercury astronauts. (The others were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton.)

Shepard defeated a fierce competition to be chosen for the first American manned mission in space. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin famously became the first man in space on April 12, 1961, thanks to repeated postponements of NASA’s Mercury mission, but Shepard wasn’t far behind. A month later, on May 5, he made his own flight into space. Unfortunately, he grounded after being diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, which resulted in an unusually high volume of fluid in the inner ear.

Surgery four years later corrected the problem and Shepard was allowed to fly. He narrowly missed being assigned to the famed Apollo 13 mission — NASA’s “most successful failure” and the subject of the 1995 Oscar-winning film, Apollo 13 (one of my all time favorites). Instead, Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 mission, which launched on January 31, 1971 and landed on the moon on February 5.

To the moon!

The idea for Shepard’s golf stunt came from a 1970 visit by comedian Bob Hope to NASA headquarters in Houston. Hope, an avid golfer, joked about hitting a golf ball on the moon, and Shepard thought it would be an excellent means of conveying to people looking back on Earth the difference in the strength of gravity. So he paid a professional named Jack Harden of the River Oaks Country Club in Houston to modify a Wilson Staff 6 iron head so it could be attached to a collapsible aluminum and Teflon sample collector. While NASA’s Technical Services division was putting the finishing touches on, Shepard practiced his golf swing on a Houston golf course while wearing his 200-pound spacesuit to prepare.

Most popular accounts describe Shepard as “smuggling” two balls and a golf club onto the spacecraft, but according to a later interview with Shepard, that was not the case. The astronaut ran the idea past then-NASA director Bob Gilruth, who was initially against it, but relented when Shepard laid out the exact details. Sheparth also assured Gilruth that the stunt would not be performed until all official reconnaissance tasks were completed, and then only if the mission went smoothly.

On February 6, Shepard brought out the club and two balls. His spacesuit was too bulky to use either hand, so he brandished the makeshift bat with just his right hand. After two swings that were “more dirt than ball,” on his third swing, he made contact with the ball and “slid” it into a nearby crater. (“Seemed like a slice, Al,” joked Apollo 13 pilot Fred Haise as he watched from Mission Control.)

But Shepard passed on his fourth attempt. He sent the ball out of range of the camera, stating that he traveled “miles and miles and miles”. And as he expected, the impressive 30-second flight time perfectly showed the difference in gravity between the Earth and the Moon. Not to mention, crewmate Edgar Mitchell used a pole from a solar wind experiment as a spear, which landed near the first golf ball. Back on Earth, Shepard donated his makeshift club to the USGA Museum and had a reproduction made that is now on display at the Smithsonian.

The location of the first ball Shepard hit has been known for quite some time – it sits in a crater next to Mitchell’s spear, about 24 yards from where Shepard was standing when he took his shot. Saunders’ remastering of archival photos allowed him to locate the second ball that traveled further, as well as one of the divots in the lunar soil.

“You can access very high-quality Apollo footage online,” Apollo historian and video editor W. David Woods told Ars. “These photos were taken on 55 millimeters, the negatives and transparencies, at 55 millimeters per side. The scans they did on them and available online are 11,000 pixels wide, so they’re huge, huge photos that you can really get into. dive in, if you have expertise in image processing.”

Image tricks

Saunders has that expertise. Relying on recent high-resolution scans of the original flight film, he also used a technique known as substacking, among other things.

“Some things were shot with 16mm film,” Woods says. “Each single image is quite small and grainy. But if you stack them on top of each other, you eliminate the grain, you eliminate the noise, and you’re left with the images inherent in all those frames. It’s a trick astronomers use, taking lots and lots of pictures of part of the night sky, neutralizing the noise by stacking the images in exactly the same way.”

The Apollo 14 crew had taken a series of photos from the window of the lunar module to capture the scene for posterity, which Saunders pieced together into a single panorama. According to Saunders, given the known location of the TV camera, it was possible to identify Shepard’s shoe prints, showing his point of view for his first two (failed) attempts. Using a well-known scale of images created by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, he was then able to measure the point between the divot and the second golf ball to make his estimate for 40 yards.

Saunders, whose forthcoming book is titled: Apollo Remastered, estimates that a professional US Open golfer like Bryson DeChambeau could theoretically hit a ball up to 5.41 miles on the moon, with a hang time of 1 minute 22 seconds — much further (and longer) than Shepard’s feat. As he told the BBC:

Unfortunately, even the impressive second shot could hardly be described as “miles and miles and miles”, but this, of course, has only been regarded as a light exaggeration. The moon is basically a gigantic, unraked, rock-strewn bunker. The pressurized suits severely restricted movement, and because of their helmet visors, they had trouble seeing even their feet. I would challenge any club golfer to go to their local course and try to hit a six-iron, one-handed, with a quarter swing out of an unraked bunker. Then imagine that you are fully clothed, wearing a helmet and wearing thick gloves. Also remember that there was little gravity to pull the club head down towards the ball. The fact that Shepard even made contact and got the ball in the air is extremely impressive.

And, of course, the astronaut’s legacy as the first human to play golf on the moon remains safe.

By akfire1

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