Alan Shepard was only the second person to enter space, but the first to hit a golf ball on the moon.
On America’s first manned mission into space, Shepard piloted the Freedom 7 on a 15-minute suborbital trajectory. (He didn’t actually orbit the earth, but he wasn’t supposed to). Ten years later at age 47 he piloted Apollo 14’s lunar module to the moon’s surface. Stuart Roosa conducted experiments while orbiting in space as Shepard and Edgar Mitchell spent two days on the moon – with a few minutes’ time out for sports.
Alan Shepard was born on Nov. 18, 1923, in Derry, N.H., the son of Lt. Col. Alan B. Shepard, Sr., and Renza Emerson. He was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Richard Warren. He attended Pinkerton Academy. As a boy, he received his first flying lesson from Arnold Sidney Butler in exchange for cleaning out an aircraft hangar at Daniel B. Webster Airport in Nashua, N.H.
On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became a national hero for his 116-mile-high space shot.
After the Mercury flight, he was grounded for five years due to Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder. Doctors corrected the problem, and he returned to flight status. His crewmates thought him so old at 47 they called him Wile E. Coyote.
On Jan. 31, 1971, Apollo 14 blasted off for the third trip to the moon. Five days later, Shepard walked on the lunar surface, the fifth person to do so. He and Mitchell spent 33 hours on the moon, nine of them walking.
Then the time for their return neared. Shepard had smuggled into his spacesuit two golf balls and a Wilson six-iron head, which he attached to a lunar scoop handle. Here’s what happened next, according to an edited transcript from the Apollo 14 Lunar Surface Journal.
Shepard: Houston, while you’re looking that up, you might recognize what I have in my hand as the handle for the contingency sample return; it just so happens to have a genuine six iron on the bottom of it. In my left hand, I have a little white pellet that’s familiar to millions of Americans. I’ll drop it down. Unfortunately, the suit is so stiff, I can’t do this with two hands, but I’m going to try a little sand-trap shot here.
[Jones – “He topped and buried it on the first swing. I assume that the six-iron was snuck on board.”]
[Mitchell – “In his suit pocket.”]
Houston (Mitchell): You got more dirt than ball that time.
Shepard: Got more dirt than ball. Here we go again.
(The ball traveled 2-3 feet)
Houston (Haise): That looked like a slice to me, Al.
Shepard: Here we go. Straight as a die; one more. (Long Pause)
(His third swing connects and travels along a low trajectory to the right. He drops another ball and hits it along a similar path.)
Shepard: Miles and miles and miles.
Actually, the ball didn’t travel that far. Shepard later estimated it went 200-400 feet. Still, that’s not bad considering he was wearing a space suit and hitting with one hand.
Shepard’s golf shot is one of the most enduring moments in the space program – and in the history of golf. He later joked that he had improved his lie because he played by winter rules in February.
He got the idea from comedian Bob Hope, an avid golfer. Hope had visited NASA headquarters in Houston in 1970.
Hope had an old driver that he was swinging as we walked around the campus. We hooked him up in a moon walker, and as he was bouncing up and down on his toes, he used the driver for balance. That’s when I said to myself, I have to find a way to hit a ball on the moon.
This story was updated in 2022.