As we stare down the possibility of another government shutdown, perhaps it will mitigate our stress to think back to simpler times. A time when we were sending men to the moon (probably one of the least simple accomplishments of science and engineering).
A time known as “1971,” when Apollo 14 launched on January 31.
Apollo 14 was special for many reasons: It was the third mission to land humans on the moon. It was the first mission after the nearly-catastrophic Apollo 13 mission. It returned Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, to the cold, dark vacuum where he’d made history.
But of course, what we all remember is Shepard’s golf game.
Shepard rigged himself a golf club using a head he brought from Earth and the handle of a “contingency sample return device,” which as far as I can tell, looks like a very fancy/expensive butterfly net, but for rocks.
“Houston, while you’re looking that up, you might recognize what I have in my hand is the handle for the contingency sample return; it just so happens to have a genuine six iron on the bottom of it,” Shepard said to viewers back on Earth.
Using one arm because of the limited mobility afforded by his space suit, Shepard got a few shots in.
“In my left hand, I have a little white pellet that’s familiar to millions of Americans. I’ll drop it down. Unfortunately, the suit is so stiff, I can’t do this with two hands, but I’m going to try a little sand trap shot here,” Shepard said.
At the time, Shepard said one of his shots went “miles and miles and miles.” Later Shepard estimated that it really went about 200 yards, which is still farther than I could hit a golf ball with two hands, even in moon gravity.
No, the objective of the Apollo 14 mission was not solely to let Alan Shepard shoot under lunar par. NASA lists one of the many objectives as “collection of surface material samples.” NASA touts the fact that it was successful in this mission because the astronauts had a cart with them. Sometimes the simplest solution is the best.
But even rock collection has a wild story attached to it. Unbeknownst to the astronauts, they’d discovered Earth’s oldest rock on the moon. According to recent research, the rock masquerading as a moon rock probably ended up on the moon after an impact billions of years ago launched it all the way to the moon.
Look, if we wanted to spend millions of dollars – $400 million, according to news reports at the time – studying earth rocks, NASA would have sent the astronauts to buy out the showroom at Tiffany’s.
Of course, as we head into an age of potential space tourism, watch presidents golf with stunning regularity and discuss a new branch of the military focused on space, maybe a $400 million space golf trip isn’t all that crazy.