Mission control: You need to bend your knees a little more. Keep your head down.
Alan Shepard: I’m… wearing a space suit.
Mission control: Just trying to help.

Apollo 14, the third crew ever to land on the Moon, pulled one of the most iconic stunts of all time.

Along with Stuart Roosa (left) and Edgar Mitchel (right), commander Alan Shepard (center) became the first man to golf on another planet.

His famous quote, after hitting the ball squarely, was:

Miles and miles and miles.

But take a look at the video itself. It sure doesn’t seem like that ball would’ve gone miles and miles and miles at all.

Is hitting a golf ball for miles on the Moon really possible? Let’s look at this in a little detail. On Earth, a very good golfer can hit a ball about 300 yards, with very few notable exceptions getting a little farther.

But the Moon’s a little different. With no atmosphere (and no air resistance), and only one-sixth of the Earth’s gravity, we can figure out — with a little help from physics — how far it would be possible to hit a golf ball on the Moon! We need to know two things to figure it out: how fast the ball can move and what angle to hit the ball at.

So what’s the fastest initial speed a golf ball can have? Well, you can measure the speed of a golf club without too much problem.

Even a typical amateur golfer can swing a club at 90 miles per hour (40 m/s). Does that mean the ball goes off at that speed? Hardly. You can make the ball go twice that speed! How? Just make sure you’ve got a club head that’s much more massive than the ball, and that you’ve got an elastic collision, and you’re in business!

So let’s say you can give the ball an initial speed of 180 miles per hour (80 m/s) on the Moon. What angle would you hit it at?

This is very different from Earth, where you hit the ball at a relatively low angle and rely on aerodynamics to minimize wind resistance and maximize the distance. On the Moon, you’ve simply got to launch it at 45 degrees, and that’s the farthest it can go on the fly!

And you want it to go on the fly, because the surface of the Moon is like one giant sand trap. So how far is that?

Nearly two and a half miles, or 3948 meters! Not only that, but it would take more than a minute (69.8 seconds) for the ball to come back down! In fact, it’s totally conceivable that Alan Shepard’s one-armed, 6-iron shot on the Moon holds the record for the farthest golf shot in the history of humanity!

So surprisingly, the answer is yes, miles and miles and miles is totally realistic for a golf shot on the Moon!

Now, if only there were some good way to find that ball in the great sand trap that is the Moon’s surface…

Comments

  1. #1 theshortearedowl
    October 2, 2010

    Some day, future astroarchaelogists will have massive debates over the findings of weird, dimpled white spheres found on the moon. Some will argue that they are incontrovertible evidence of aliens. Others that they must have been some form of spent fuel nuclei from whatever bizarre hydrocarbon combustion system the ancient Ameicans used to scramble their primitive metal box up there.

    Some fringe group will put forward the theory that a civilisation that could barely haul itself around the Earth in less than a couple of days, or explore the bottom of the oceans, went to the moon and played a game of golf.

    But no one will take them seriously.

  2. #2 Sili
    October 2, 2010

    Just give those people having fun with the LRO a little longer.

  3. #3 Markus Mencke
    October 2, 2010

    >Now, if only there were some good way to find that ball in the great sand trap that is the Moon’s surface…

    Should not be too hard – there already are golf balls that incorporate LED lighting for night play, and even some that “beep”, so they can be found in the underbrush.
    Replace that with a homing radio signal, and you can open the first golf course on Luna.

    http://www.golf-for-business.de/golfportal/golfbaelle-sondermodelle.php (sorry, in German, but there should be some equivalent somewhere on the inet…)

    “Tracer” is blinking 7 times a second, “Trakflite” is with sound.

  4. #4 Jon H
    October 2, 2010

    The lack of familiar distance cues might make it hard for a person on the moon to judge the distance that the ball flew, even with an easy-to-spot ball.

    Speaking of which, there’s probably a lot of UV, so a UV-fluorescing ball should be easier to spot.

  5. #5 Tony P
    October 2, 2010

    No atmosphere on the moon so sound would be out of the question. A little radio beacon might help since radio is electro-magnetic in nature.

  6. #6 John Morales
    October 2, 2010

    Nice.

    One quibble:

    the first man to golf on another planet

    If it’s the Moon, is it really a planet?

  7. #7 Rosie Redfield
    October 2, 2010

    Don’t you also need to consider whether the moon’s low gravity affects how much force you can exert?

    I don’t mean that I know it does, but I’d like to see the issues this raises. For example, does low gravity make it harder to keep your balance? Are your feet more likely to slip when you try to put a lot of power into your swing?

  8. #8 ShaunOTD
    October 2, 2010

    Never mind gravity, how hard can you actually swing in one of those suits!?

  9. #9 Militant Agnostic
    October 2, 2010

    For example, does low gravity make it harder to keep your balance? Are your feet more likely to slip when you try to put a lot of power into your swing?

    I would think the spacesuit restricting and resisting motion would be bigger problem.

  10. #10 glopk
    October 2, 2010

    Not to nitpick, but the lede is a tad misleading: Stuart Roosa, as the Apollo 14 Command Module pilot, did not get to land on the Moon, so he could not golf.

  11. #11 Douglas Watts
    October 3, 2010

    On the moon, where’s the rough? And is Venus a mulligan?

  12. #12 Alex Besogonov
    October 3, 2010

    Also, at distance of 3 km curvature of the Moon is non-negligible. It can give you additional 10-20 meters of flight.

    Nah, too lazy to calculate the exact figure.

  13. #13 blf
    October 3, 2010

    It just occurred to me that with all the cratersdimples, The Moon is someone’s lost golfball. Or at least I hope it’s lost; I don’t think I want to see a proportionately-sized club swinging towards it…

      † Some of which really are craters. The MoonGiant’s Golfball has been stuck in The Orbit Trap for a long, long time now.

  14. #14 Wazza
    October 3, 2010

    John Morales: Most classify the moon as a minor planet, in the same category as Ceres and Pluto… given the size ratio, Luna and Earth look more like a double planet than a planet and satellite.

  15. #15 Michel
    October 3, 2010

    We should go back and find the blasted ball!

  16. #16 Ankush
    October 3, 2010

    Since at the moon atmosphere is not .so there is no resistance.And at the atmosphere the weight of the ball is one fifth weight of the at the earth

  17. #17 Tim DeLaney
    October 3, 2010

    Using a 6 iron would waste some of the energy by imparting spin, wouldn’t it? Seems to me that you’d get maximum distance by using a driver and a very high tee to get a launch angle of 45 degrees with very little spin.

    Also, wouldn’t the moon’s curvature affect (albeit slightly) the ideal launch angle? Of course, it’s all moot, as we know that you drive for show, putt for dough.

  18. #18 Anonymous Legions
    October 3, 2010

    I wonder if the actual trajectory numbers could be computed from the video frames themselves.

  19. #19 toddcaton
    October 4, 2010

    More importantly, since the moon’s gravity is 1/6th that of the Earth’s, could I apply that same fraction to my score? If so, that might make it worth taking up golf again. Of course, there’s still the small problem of getting to the course….

  20. if tiger woods hit the ball then may be there is a chance……….just kidding i don’t think its ever gonna happen.

  21. #21 Omega Centauri
    October 4, 2010

    I think the optimization of takeoff angle is much more complicated than 45degrees. Even if we take the uniform flat gravitational field, and flat surface for granted, which maxmizes distance at a given velocity, I doubt you can get as high of a takeoff velocity at 45degrees as you can at say 0degrees. So the efficiency of the elastic impact has to be taken account of. Also I think curvature oribably brings the optimum algle down as well. Then depending upon the direction of travel, lunar rotation will either help or hinder your
    distance…….

  22. #22 ToSeek
    October 4, 2010

    Mission control: You need to bend your knees a little more. Keep your head down.
    Alan Shepard: I’m… wearing a space suit.
    Mission control: Just trying to help.

    Just for the record, that’s not actual dialogue but stuff made up for the ESPN ad. (Most of the rest is real – if dubbed – though.) Transcript is available here – scroll down to 135:08:17.

  23. #23 Adam
    October 5, 2010

    If this could be possible on the moon could we do it on Earth? if so, how much force would that take?

  24. #24 Kayla Williams
    October 12, 2010

    What would make the golf ball go farther in the air on the moon than on earth? Would being on the moon increase the gravity level and just make the ball float which makes it hover for miles and miles? Could anyone do this or would you need a special golf master to do it? Would the gravitational force on the moon pull you upwards so you wouldn’t be able to stand on the platform to be in the correct position to even hit the ball. You would have to be stationary and be able to actually hit the ball with your suit on, so I don’t think this would be possible to hit it miles and miles.

  25. #25 Gabby Craig
    October 13, 2010

    My understanding is that it would be a possible hypothesis. Space has no gravity therefore hitting an object on the moon would be possible for miles and miles.

  26. #26 Clark
    November 22, 2010

    In June 2010, ScienceBlogs started a blog which was sponsored by PepsiCo and was to be written by their employees.[7][8] This lead to backlash by many of the bloggers on ScienceBlogs who considered this to be an unethical mix of advertising and journalism,ccna and the PepsiCo blog was withdrawn from ScienceBlogs. This affair was informally named “PepsiGate”, and many bloggers left, including Rebecca Skloot. Subsequently other bloggers, such as Bora Zivkovic, also left although they did not all attribute their leaving directly to the inclusion of the PepsiCo blog.

  27. #27 sarahsam
    November 20, 2011

    I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this post.

  28. #28 Smeagol
    Poznan
    October 8, 2013

    Since Moons radius is roughly 1735km, we can assume the ball would travel 0.23% of the radius. Since for such small values of x, cos(x) is roughly equal 0.999997, the curvature of the moon itself would probably affect the distance by much less than a meter. However, while covering the distance of 4km, the ball would spend most of the flight above the altitude of 500m. And since gravity force is reverse proportionally to the distance from the moons core, the average gravity affecting the ball at 0.5km would be about 0.06% smaller than at the surface. This gives us 0.03% more time in the air (because t = sqrt(2*s/a)), which would gain over a meter in distance :)

  29. #29 smeagol
    Poznań
    October 8, 2013

    Following is the corrected version of my post:
    Since Moons radius is roughly 1735km, we can assume the ball would travel 0.23% of the radius. Since for such small values of x, cos(x) is roughly equal 0.999997, the curvature of the moon itself would probably affect the distance by much less than a meter. However, while covering the distance of 4km, the ball would spend most of the flight above the altitude of 500m. And since gravity force is reverse proportionally to the square distance from the moons core, the average gravity affecting the ball at 0.5km would be about 0.06% smaller than at the surface. This gives us 0.06% more time in the air, which would gain over 2 meters in distance :)

  30. #30 Loman
    RSA
    February 6, 2014

    So a Golf ball will go a long way, but would it be possible to put something off with such force that it will orbit the moon like the moon orbits earth?

    Like if you shoot a rifle at the right angle will the bullets continue to orbit the moon?

  31. #31 Wow
    February 7, 2014

    Lonman, if the bullet has too much kinetic energy, the orbit will be so elliptical that part of that orbit will be under the moon’s surface. So the bullet wouldn’t manage one complete orbit, nor escape.