RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A Russian cosmonaut aboard the international space station, later today, will put on his bulky suit and step into the vacuum of space. He'll be carrying a golf club because he's going to whack some balls around.
NPR's Nell Boyce reports.
Unidentified Man: Five, four, three…
NELL BOYCE: Thirty-five years ago, astronaut Alan Shepard rocketed into space on Apollo 14. NASA wanted him to collect a moon rocks. He wanted to play golf. On the moon, Shepard took out a makeshift club and dropped a golf ball into the gray dust.
Mr. ALAN SHEPARD (Astronaut): (Unintelligible) I can't do this with two hands, but I'm going to try an old sand trap shot, here.
BOYCE: His colleagues mocked his first couple of swings.
Mr. EDGAR MITCHELL (Astronaut): You got more dirt than ball that time.
Unidentified Man #2: That looked like a slice to me, Alan.
BOYCE: But his next shot was perfect.
Mr. SHEPARD: Here we go, straight as a die; one more. Miles and miles and miles.
BOYCE: The ball didn't really soar some miles in the moon's low gravity. But tonight's drive from the space station should be a long shot.
Ms. NATALIA HEARN (Element 21 Golf): Once the ball is hit, it's going to orbit the earth. So it's definitely going to be world in space record.
BOYCE: Natalia Hearn runs a company called the Element 21 Golf. It sells clubs made up of a metal alloy developed by Russian aerospace scientists. A little over a year ago, her team came up with this promotional stunt.
She won't say how much they're paying the Russian space agency to tee off in space. But she does say that NASA officials were not amused.
Ms. HEARN: They did give us hard time.
BOYCE: What do you mean?
Ms. HEARN: There were issues that were raised. Somehow you can envision that that the ball can puncture a hole through international space station.
BOYCE: In other words, the ball might whiz around to the earth only to come back and smack the station. Officials discussed that scenario last week during a deadpan press briefing.
Kirk Shireman is a manager for the station. He kept referring to the stunt as the Russian golf task or experiment.
Mr. KIRK SHIREMAN (NASA Deputy Program Manager): This is a type of an experiment that would typically be designed and conducted for the U.S. program. But if it's done by the Russians, for their purposes, I'm glad to do it as long it's a safe thing to execute.
BOYCE: Dozens of NASA safety experts have now signed off on the plan. The space station will be moving in one direction, and cosmonaut Mikhail Turin will hit the ball the other way.
The balls should end up miles from the station and will eventually burn up in the atmosphere. Turin has been practicing his swing for months. Rick Martino is director of instruction for the Professional Golf Association of America. Martino gave the cosmonaut a little lesson before he went into space.
Mr. RICK MARTINO (Director, Professional Golfers' Association of American): He had played some hockey but he had never touched the golf club. And like many people taking up golf for the first time, it seems strange.
BOYCE: Even stranger since he's planning to swing in zero gravity.
Mr. MARTINO: You have to tie a ball down or it'll float away. You have to tie the player down or it'll float away.
BOYCE: Instead of perching on a tee, the ball will sit inside a high-tech slinky. Turin will hook his feet under a ladder. His bulky suit means he'll only be able to make a one hand at half wedge.
Still the ball will orbit earth for either three days or three years, depending on whether you believe NASA or Element 21. Either way, Martino expects that golfers will watch this closely.
Mr. MARTINO: It intrigues us because it's not something that we get to do, but we can kind of see it.
BOYCE: And officials at Houston's Mission Control promised that they'll speak in hushed tones as the cosmonaut lines up his shot.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You can see footage of Alan Shepard's 1971 lunar golf swing at npr.org.
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