NASA astronaut and space station commander Drew Feustel played fellow NASA astronauts Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Ricky Arnold along with European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst in the microgravity doubles match.
During the heated match — the full video of the event can be seen here — the astronauts struggled with the limitations of a microgravity environment (while being careful not to cause any damage to the station). But Feustel was well-prepared: He is a lifelong tennis fan, and he got some pre-match tips from professional tennis player Juan M. del Potro, which he described on Twitter.
That was a fun chat with @delpotrojuan Thanks for the tips, I need all the help I can get for tonight’s game. Watch if you can from 8:30 to 9:30 ET on USOpen FB, Twitter and YouTube. First Tennis Match in Space! #TminusNetGeneration https://t.co/B3Gnd9MtoQ— A.J. (Drew) Feustel (@Astro_Feustel) August 21, 2018
The astronauts used tiny tennis racquets and a tennis ball to play — equipment designed to be safe to use aboard the space station. "You really don't want to break a window or something," Gordon Smith, executive director of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), told Space.com. The event took place at the Unisphere, a huge globe in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens that was once the centerpiece of the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. The cosmic tennis match was projected onto the Unisphere.
Feustel predicted that the game might look a bit like the classic video game "Pong," and it turned out that he was right. Because of the lack of gravity, the ball didn't bounce and, once it was hit, it traveled straight until hit again.
But, as the astronauts were hitting the tennis ball in microgravity over a makeshift net, they themselves floated around. So they faced the added struggle of trying to stay upright to hit the ball to the right location.
Feustel and Arnold, whom Feustel jokingly referred to as the "assistant to the commander" (a reference to the television show "The Office"), ended up securing the victory in the extraterrestrial tennis match.
But, despite winning the match, Feustel made it clear that playing tennis in space is no easy task. "I feel a little bit winded," Feustel said afterward. "It was a difficult match and playing in microgravity is tough."
Smith, who presented the projected match to an excited audience of space and tennis enthusiasts, is thrilled to see space and tennis come together: "What could be cooler?" he said. He also told Space.com that the USTA is "about innovation, and I think tennis in space is innovative."
As for the future of space tennis, Smith said he is hopeful about additional extraterrestrial matches. "I think we're going to have to have a regular competition in space," he told Space.com. "I think the astronauts are going to be vying for who's going to be the best tennis player in space."