The following content was first published in the monthly digital edition of Golf Journal. To be among the first to receive access to Golf Journal, the USGA’s Members-only quarterly print and monthly digital publication – along with the many other benefits of becoming a USGA Member – visit the USGA Membership page.
USGA GOLF MUSEUM
The Mystery Behind Alan Shepard's 'Moon Shot' Revealed
February 5, 2021
By Andy Saunders
There are several contenders for the most incredible sporting moment of all time: Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile, “The Shot” by Michael Jordan and the Miracle on Ice are just a few of the indelible achievements that stick in our collective memories. But one “out of this world” moment trumps them all – that time 50 years ago when astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. played golf on the moon.
While the club he used on Feb. 6, 1971 – a Wilson Staff Dyna-Power 6-iron head attached to a collapsible tool designed to scoop lunar rock samples – resides in the USGA Golf Museum, one question has persisted about those intergalactic swings in the past half century: how far did Shepard’s moon shots actually travel?
Every quizmaster knows that Shepard hit two golf balls; the first was “shanked” into a nearby crater (well, this is moon golf!), while the second, Shepard exclaimed, went “miles and miles and miles...” But the actual distance of this second shot has been the subject of much conjecture and analysis by historians and physics experts over the years. Only finding the ball, either by returning to the moon, or with photographic evidence, can solve the mystery.
Thanks to recent high-resolution scans of the actual original flight film (which has rarely made it out of its frozen archive vault in Houston) and modern image enhancement techniques, the second ball has been identified and located, as has one of the “divots” in the lunar soil. Using a known scale from images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), a spacecraft launched in 2009, the point between divot and ball can be measured.
After returning to the Lunar Module in preparation to leave the moon, the Apollo 14 crew took sequences of photographs from the window to show the landing site. The following image consists of six such photographs, enhanced and stitched into a single panorama to show the scene from the window, along with the location from where Shepard swung his makeshift club, and both golf balls.
By knowing the location of the television camera and analyzing the broadcast footage of the golf shots, Shepard’s boot prints can be identified, showing his stance for his first attempt – when he took “more dirt than ball.” He then stepped forward for a second, more successful attempt and we can also see his divot in the lunar soil.
CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator) Fred Haise, who was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 13, applied some astute commentary from his position in Mission Control: “Looked like a slice to me, Al.” The location of the first “shanked” ball can be seen in the crater to the right. This was previously known and has been seen before in lower resolution photographs. Next to it lies, not a bunker rake, but a pole from a solar wind experiment that was hurled like a javelin by crewmate Edgar Mitchell.
Shepard then throws down a second ball, which rolls back to his right and he appears to get a more favorable lie. With a similar swing, he appears to get a better contact and the ball sails out of view.
The higher resolution, enhanced images allow for a closer comparison to the first ball, confirming this must be Shepard’s second ball – a more impressive effort, appearing to go “straight down the middle” toward the ALSEP experiments package.
Identifying the exact location and distance of both shots required measurements from nearby identifiable features on the LRO images. As Apollo 14 lifted off from the surface, a 16mm movie camera recorded the event from the window. Applying a complex stacking technique on multiple separate frames of this footage to enhance the detail also reveals the two balls. This is confirmed by cross-referencing boulders, craters, and the astronauts’ tracks in the film, with the first high resolution images.
These features are then more clearly identifiable on the images taken from lunar orbit by the 2009 LRO. The astronauts’ tracks in the original photographs perfectly match those taken from orbit 40 years later:
We can now determine the approximate distances of both shots: ball number one (24 yards) and ball number two (40 yards). Unfortunately, even the impressive second shot could hardly be described as “miles and miles and miles,” but of course this has always been regarded as a light-hearted exaggeration; something highly competitive astronauts and golfers are prone to.
Despite the lack of distance, it is still a rather astonishing feat. The moon is effectively one giant, un-raked, rock-strewn bunker. There were no “preferred lies” as a fully-suited astronaut would struggle to tee the ball up on the surface. The pressurized suits severely restricted movement, and due to their helmet’s visors, they struggled to even see their feet. Remember also that there was little gravity to pull the clubhead down toward the ball.
The fact that Shepard even made contact and got the ball airborne is extremely impressive. And due to the one-sixth gravity and lack of atmosphere, the ball traveled significantly farther than it would have on Earth. The absence of aerodynamic forces on the ball, and lack of the spin-induced “magnus effect” caused by the ball’s dimples, meant that it followed a perfectly parabolic flight. It also stayed airborne longer due to lower gravitational forces pulling it back to the ground.
So how far could a golfer theoretically hit a ball on the moon? If 2016 PGA champion and space enthusiast Jimmy Walker replicated his Earthbound ball speed of 185 miles per hour on the moon, and used a club that would ensure a 45 degree launch angle, it would travel 2.62 miles (4,611 yards) and stay in the air for more than one minute. Literally, “miles and miles and miles…”
“Those numbers really put it in perspective,” said Walker, who has been interested in astronomy since he was young and became involved in astrophotography about 10 years ago when his wife gave him a telescope as a Christmas present. “It’s pretty cool that golf was the first sport played off the planet. It’s a game that everyone can play – literally anywhere.”
Walker’s connection to the renowned shot has a layer beyond his love of space. He frequently plays golf with Jack Harden Jr., the son of the club professional at River Oaks Country Club in Houston who helped make the club that Shepard took on his mission.
Using the club that Harden created for him, part of Shepard’s motivation was to demonstrate the principle of how objects behave in the unique lunar environment. It also turned out to be a rather positive public relations event for NASA, one that is still talked about today. Despite not holding the “long drive” record, ultimately Shepard’s legacy as the first American in space and the first human to play golf on another world can’t be touched.
Andy Saunders is an imaging specialist and author of the upcoming book “Apollo Remastered.” You can sign up for updates on the book and even send your name to the moon by visiting ApolloRemastered.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @AndySaunders_1.