Canadian Firm Hopes for Orbital Hang Time in ISS Golf Shot
Expedition 14 flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin practices his orbital golf inside the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA TV.

The Canadian sports equipment firm Element 21 is gearing up for an orbital kickoff for its space-age clubs in what promises to be the longest drive in the history of golf.

On Wednesday, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin will use a gold-plated Element 21 golf club to hit at least one ball off the International Space Station (ISS) [image]. The stunt will kick off a planned six-hour spacewalk by Tyurin and ISS Expedition 14 commander Michael Lopez-Alegria.

Video: Spacewalk Golf
Expedition 14 lead spacewalk officer Glenda Laws narrates plans for a Nov. 22, 2006 spacewalk.

"We'll have opened a golf course in space," David Sindall, co-founder of the Toronto-based Element 21, told of the upcoming golf shot. "It's the smallest clubhouse definitely...but with the largest real estate, infinite real estate, and the longest fairway."

Clad in his bulky Russian-built Orlan spacesuit, Tyurin will make a one-handed swing with an Element 21 six-iron club, aiming an ultra-light golf ball out over the aft end of the ISS opposite the station's direction of travel.

Sindall and Element 21 president and CEO Nataliya Hearn have spent more than two years and an undisclosed amount of money, to pay Russia's Federal Space Agency for the spacewalk time, preparing for what they're billing as the "Golf Shot Around the World Mission."

Video of Tyurin's orbital shot will be used in an Element 21 commercial to promote the firm's golf clubs slated to hit the store shelves next year [image]. The clubs are made from the lightweight, yet sturdy, metal scandium, which has also been used on segments of the ISS and Russia's Mir space station.

"This is not just a one day or a several seconds event," Hearn told "The ball will continue orbiting the Earth after the shot."

Days versus years

Just how long the ball orbits the Earth is the subject of some debate.

Element 21 and Russian space officials have estimated that the golf balls--Tyurin will carry three outside the ISS, but may not use them all--could remain in orbit for more than three years. NASA officials, however, maintain the golf balls will circle Earth for a mere three days before burning up in the atmosphere.

"I believe our data to be accurate," NASA's deputy ISS program manager Kirk Shireman said last week. "I suspect that there were some initial conditions or assumptions that were provided."

The discrepancy could be traced to a change in the balls themselves.

Initially, Tyruin was slated to smack a gold-plated golf ball [image] that could be tracked from Earth, but his targets were later changed to white balls weighing only one-tenth of an ounce (three grams), or about one-third the weight of a U.S. dollar bill [image]. The average Earthly golf ball weighs about 1.5 ounces (45 grams).

The new golf balls' short orbital lifespan, direction of travel and light weight assures that the pose no debris risk to the ISS or NASA's upcoming shuttle launch on Dec. 7, the U.S. space agency said.

"It's about 1/15th of the weight of a regular golf ball," said Holly Ridings, NASA's lead Expedition 14 extravehicular activity (EVA) flight director. "There's absolutely no recontact issue with the ISS."

Anatomy of orbital golf

The orbital golf stunt is one-part commercial and one-part celebration to commemorate the 35th anniversary of a lunar tee-off by the late Alan Shepard during NASA's Apollo 14 mission to the Moon in 1971 [image]. The stunt was delayed from a July spacewalk to allow time to repair a camera on the space station's railcar-like Mobile Transport system.

"I took two classes on golf because of this," Tyurin said before the flight. "Golf is not a very popular game in Russia."

In fact, Tyurin--a hockey player at heart--trained with the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Hall of Famer Carol Mann and PGA director of instruction Rick Martino on Earth, and donned an Orlan spacesuit for underwater practice as well.

"He's actually fallen in love with the game," Hearn said.

NASA video has shown Tyurin rehearsing the golf shot both inside and outside his spacesuit [image].

"I've tried to spend some time for additional practicing with my golf equipment to keep myself in good shape," Tyurin told Fox & Friends last month from orbit.

The Element 21 golf shot is the first item on the agenda for tomorrow's ISS spacewalk and will take place atop a ladder that juts out from the space station's Russian-built Pirs docking compartment that doubles as an EVA airlock.

Lopez-Alegria will record video Tyurin as he hits the golf ball aft over the space station's Russian-built Zvezda service module from a custom-built tee that resembles a sort of conical spring [image].

"We were making a joke that maybe we'd have a men's tee and a ladies tee," Hearn said. "The men would be aiming for Mars and the women would aim for Venus."

Hearn said she hopes the tee will remain on the ISS for use by future astronauts or space tourists. Sindall added that the firm has drawn up special medals to award future ISS clubhouse members whose dues would then go to charity [image].

The Element 21 golf club currently aboard the ISS has been signed by each astronaut to visit the station since its Fall 2005 arrival and will be returned later to be displayed in a museum or auctioned off for charity, Hearn said.

"We see this as the next revolution in the golf industry," Hearn said. "I think it's really making a statement that this material will change the face of golf."