February 6 – Fore!

Today’s Factismal: Alan Shepard played at the universe’s most exclusive golf course when he swung a six-iron at three golf balls on the Moon in 1971.

There have been 530 people who flew into space. There have been 24 people who flew from the Earth to the Moon. And there have been twelve who walked on the Moon. But there has only ever been one person who played golf on the Moon: Alan Shepard.

Shepard plants the flag on the Moon (Image courtesy NASA)

Shepard plants the flag on the Moon (Image courtesy NASA)

Shepard was the commander of the Apollo 14 mission. After the near-tragedy of Apollo 13, the stakes were high for Apollo 14. Not only did they have to demonstrate that it was still safe to fly to the Moon, but they had to land in the Frau Mauro highlands instead of at the Littrow crater. Fortunately, they were able to cram the necessary training into the eight months between the two missions.

Their main mission objective was to gather samples of the ejecta from the Fra Mauro crater. Named for an Italian monk and geographer, the crater had punched a hole into the Moon, throwing out pieces of deeper and older rocks. By taking these samples home the astronauts could provide planetologists with information about the Moon’s history.

Shepard collects samples from Fra Maurro (Image courtesy NASA)

Shepard collects samples from Fra Mauro (Image courtesy NASA)

But the astronauts weren’t all steely-eyed, no-nonsense scientists. As a matter of fact, only six of the Apollo astronauts were real scientists; all of the others were test pilots. And only one of them made it to the Moon (Harrison Schmidt). But even test pilots have a sense of humor, as Shepard demonstrated.

He smuggled the head of a golf club and three golf balls onto the Apollo 14 mission as part of his personal weight allowance. After attaching the club to a lunar sample scoop (think of a long-handled kitty litter scoop), Shepard dropped three golf balls onto the lunar surface and swung at them with the club. He connected with two of the balls, driving them “miles and miles” and making a hole in one in the crater.

Unlike the infamous “corned beef sandwich incident” that tainted the Gemini 3 mission, there were no repercussions for playing golf on the Moon. But it did solidify Shepard as the universe’s best golfer in the minds of the public.

If you’d like to help solidify what we know about the Moon, then consider helping identify lunar features with the Moon Zoo:
http://www.moonzoo.org/

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