The Future of Space Sports

The Future of Space Sports
Seen on the large television screen above the right field bleachers, Garrett Reisman throws out the first pitch from the International Space Station, before the baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday, April 16, 2008, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (Image credit: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson.)

Astronauts,by necessity, work hard in space. But during their precious time off aboard theInternational Space Station (ISS), some spaceflyers are picking their brains tocome up with the future of space sports.

?Sometimes,you just develop them by happenstance,? said NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman,who is living aboard the space station as an Expedition 17 flight engineer.

The mundanetask of filling large water bags took on a whole new meaning, he said last weekin a televised interview.

?We startedtossing them kind of like a medicine ball, and we realized that you could tossand catch and then go for a ride on this big thing as it takes you away,?Reisman said. ?So there?s all kinds of possibilities, and if there?s any goodideas out there, let me know. We?ll try it.?

Last week,Reisman tossed out the opening pitch for his beloved New York Yankees? duringtheir game against the Boston Red Sox. After years of throwing baseballs inarcs to counter gravity, he had to relearn how to throw in a straight line, hesaid.

His former Expedition16 commander Peggy Whitson, who landed on April 19 with two crewmates, hada different tack. She held a flying relay race between the station?s jointsix-astronaut crew of the Expedition 16 and 17 crews.

?We raced from one end of a module, relayed with the person waiting at theother end three modules away, and then sprinted back and sent a third person,?Whitson said. ?So it was pretty fun.?

Her team,which included Reisman, won, she added.

Findinga sport

Spacestation astronauts are scheduled to work an average of about 6 1/2 hours eachday, with about two hours set aside for exercise and about 8 1/2 reserved forsleep. But astronauts, like the rest of us, will squeeze in some fun duringtheir off-hours.

?They?regoing to be creative, they?re going to play with things,? said Walter Sipes, aNASA psychologist specializing in long-duration spaceflight support at the JohnsonSpace Center (JSC) in Houston. ?These might be lower priority activities, butthey?re higher on keeping the morale up.?

While theydon?t have a sports locker, station astronauts do have some gear at theirdisposal, Sipes told

In additionto their space treadmill and stationary bike, they?ve played weightlessbasketball, Frisbee and tossed boomerangs, to name a few. But the rules change inthe absence of gravity.

?Itdefinitely takes skill to be able to throw objects in space,? said Whitson,adding it has to be developed just like the ability to move in weightless.?Overcoming an opponent requires some skill. I think there?ll be a lot of newgames that they come up with.?

Low gravitygames have gained someground on Earth as well.

Passengershave played dodge ball and tag during short periods of weightlessness on therollercoaster-like parabolic flights of a modified Boeing 727-200 jet operatedby the Zero Gravity Corp., the Las Vegas, Nev.-based firm has said in the past.

On recentstation missions, astronauts have performed their some own orbital versions ofterrestrial athletics:

  • In March, Japanese astronaut Takao Doi threw a small boomerang aboard the station to see if it would come back without gravity. It apparently did, according to Japanese space agency officials.
  • Last year, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, ran the Boston Marathon from orbit in 4 hours, 24 minutes.
  • In 2006, European astronaut Christer Fugelsang, a former Swedish national Frisbee champion, kept a Frisbee aloft inside the station for 20 seconds - thanks to the lack of gravity - to break the previous world record of 16.72 seconds for a single toss.
  • Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin also whacked a golf ball outside the space station during a 2006 spacewalk, echoing Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard?s tee off on the moon in 1971.
  • Last year, NASA astronaut Clay Anderson used a football, baseball and make-shift bat to demonstrate the effects of weightless for students on Earth.

Judy Hayes,NASA?s division chief of human adaptation and countermeasures at JSC, saidmission planners sometimes work with astronauts to help fold their sportsinterests into their daily routines.

Williams?marathon run, for example, required the astronaut to squeeze extra traininginto her already packed worked day to prepare for the event, Hayes said. Butthe training and marathon also counted as her daily exercise allotment, sheadded.

?It?s goodfor them to come up with creative ideas. It gives them some entertainment andhelps them adapt,? Hayes told ?It?s very individualized.?

Teamingup in orbit

Sinceastronauts first began living aboard the space station in 2000, the outpost?s primarycrew has averaged about three people per mission, though two-man expeditionsmaintained the orbiting lab as NASA recovered from the 2003 Columbia shuttletragedy.

But asidefrom Soyuz crew changes and visiting shuttles of up to seven astronauts, whichpush station population to between six and 10 people, a nominal three-personcrew does not split well for competitive team sports.

That willchange in 2009, when NASA and its partners plan to double the station?s crewsize to six astronauts per mission. With a larger crew, comes wider sportoptions, Sipes said.

?Naturally,when you get more people, you can certainly do other team-based activities,?Sipes said. ?And it?s morale-building, crew cohesion-building, when you playthose.?

ForReisman, who will spend about three months aboard the station, there is time tocome up with more new sports.

?I?vethought about it, but haven?t come up with any really good answers,? he said.?There are all kinds of unique sporting things and games you could play in thisenvironment.?


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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.