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A Golf Shot to Be Hit Around the World

Times Staff Writer

In what will easily be the longest chip shot in golf history, a cosmonaut is scheduled to hit a gold-plated golf ball this summer from a makeshift tee outside the International Space Station.

If all goes as planned, the 17,000-mph drive will travel 2.1 billion miles before burning up in the atmosphere, giving a Canadian golf club manufacturer the kind of publicity that can’t be found back on Earth.

But even before the space golfer tees off, the event has drawn hisses from galleries of critics who fear that an errant shot could punch a hole in the yet-to-be completed $53-billion, 206-ton space station.

Although the risk of serious damage is small, critics say, the stunt sends the wrong signal. Instead of a state-of-the-art scientific laboratory, the station will be seen as a haven of commercialized blarney on a cosmic scale.

“Is this the right message to be sending to taxpayers in America, Russia, Europe and Japan -- that it’s OK to do a stunt like this?” said Keith Cowing of nasawatch.com, a feisty website that frequently challenges NASA policies.

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Speaking at a media briefing in Florida last week, NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin denied that commercial stunts were more important than science. “We are doing all the science that our budget allows us to do,” he said.

Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian federal space agency, who was in Florida to meet with his international counterparts, said his priority was still “to deliver the hardware to the station” that would contribute to space research.

But that doesn’t mean a few extra bucks wouldn’t be appreciated.

The golf shot is hardly the first commercial venture in space. The cash-strapped Russian space agency has taken three “space tourists” to the orbiting laboratory for a reported $20 million apiece. An Israeli company, Tnuva Food Industries, paid the Russians $450,000 to show two cosmonauts drinking milk, and Pizza Hut paid $1 million to slap a logo on the side of a Proton rocket and have cosmonauts deliver a pizza to the space station.

The Russians aren’t alone. Last year, the Japanese space agency arranged for the filming of an instant ramen noodle commercial on the space station.

The out-of-this-world tee shot is the brainchild of Nataliya Hearn, an engineering professor at the University of Windsor in Canada who is also president and chief executive of Toronto-based Element 21 Golf Co.

Three-year-old Element 21 Golf is developing a line of clubs made of an alloy of scandium, the 21st element in the periodic table -- hence the company’s name. Element 21 Golf unveiled its clubs at a golf show in January, but they haven’t yet reached retailers, a company official said.

Scandium is used in light bulb filaments and, when alloyed with aluminum, it is used to make bicycles, baseball bats and other sports gear. “It’s very light and very strong,” Hearn said.

The idea to use the space station as a giant floating tee box came a couple of years ago, when Hearn and her partners were trying to figure out ways to market their space-age clubs.

“We had a big photo of Alan Shepard on the moon,” she said, referring to the astronaut’s famed lunar golf shot during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971.

“We said, ‘Let’s see if we can convince [the Russians] this would be a great thing to do,’ ” Hearn said.

After several months of negotiations and an exchange of money -- Hearn refused to divulge how much -- a deal was struck.

A gold-plated six-iron, three gold-plated balls and a special tee to prevent the ball from drifting away in space were delivered to the space station in September aboard a Russian Progress cargo ship.

The plan calls for 52-year-old cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov to hit the shot during a spacewalk this summer. NASA’s bio of Vinogradov states that he is a fan of “game sports” but does not mention golf.

Hearn said the shot would be hit back and away from the space station, which circles Earth at about 17,000 mph. The golf ball will still move in the same orbital direction as the space station, but at a slightly slower speed. Some critics fear a vicious slice could send the ball hurtling into delicate equipment on the exterior of the station, such as its huge solar arrays.

The golf ball could also in effect become an incoming missile in a later orbit. There is already so much floating junk in Earth’s orbit that NASA has estimated there is a 1 in 200 chance each year of a catastrophic collision involving the space station.

It is estimated that the golf ball will remain in orbit for two to four years before it falls back into Earth’s atmosphere and burns up.

Hearn said the golf ball wouldn’t be a threat. However, one NASA expert on orbital debris, J.C. Liou, told the British magazine New Scientist that the ball could hit the station with the force of a 6-ton truck.

Bill Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, said that was unlikely. Because the speed of the space station and the golf ball relative to each other is similar, a collision would be unlikely to cause catastrophic damage.

The most likely time for a collision would be in the first few orbits after the ball is struck. After that, the ball’s orbit would begin to degrade, carrying it down and away from the space station, Ailor said.

A potentially more serious event is the possibility that the ball could hit a satellite orbiting below the space station, Ailor said. However, despite the estimated 10,000 softball-sized and larger pieces of debris circling the Earth, there have been only three known collisions, he said.

The golf shot is “definitely go,” Hearn said. “It’s been approved by all the member nations” that operate the space station.

Not so, according to NASA. Griffin said the agency had not yet completed its safety analysis.

“Should there not be a safety issue, then the effort proposed by [the Russians] is a revenue-generating opportunity, not a source of expenditures, and so I do not see it as being opposed to scientific or engineering research at all,” he said.

As for the U.S. space agency, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said it would not consider entering into a commercial deal such as this one. That’s in part because of fears that the space station, which is already considered a white elephant by some space enthusiasts, would become a greater source of ridicule.

“That’s how they’ve chosen to exercise their resources,” Beutel said of the Russians. “We’re not allowed to do it at NASA.”


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