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Golf ball hit into orbit by Russian cosmonaut

Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin was late for his tee time in space Wednesday, but still managed to launch a super-lightweight golf ball into orbit -- even if he sliced his shot. Tyurin hit the golf ball 77 minutes behind schedule after delays to fix an overheating spacesuit and a stuck exterior hatch.

Using a gold-plated six-iron and an American astronaut in the role of caddie-and-safety-holder, Tyurin hit the drive from a spring-like tee outside the international space station, 220 miles over the northwest Pacific Ocean. The shot, which veered a little to the right, kicked off a planned six-hour spacewalk.

''I can see it as a little dot moving away from us,'' Tyurin said.

But just how far did that baby go?

Like in any golf story, it depends on who you talk to.

That drive went a billion miles -- or will by the time it eventually comes down in a couple years -- said Nataliya Hearn, the president of Element 21 Golf Company. The Toronto firm is paying the cash-starved Russian space agency an undisclosed amount for the golf stunt to promote its new golf club that includes a space-program-derived metal.

That's a huge exaggeration, according to NASA's lead spacewalk flight director, Holly Ridings. She said NASA's calculations are that golf balls would only stay up two to three days, which would put the drive closer to a mere million miles.

Just how far the golf ball travels won't be known until the ball burns up and enters Earth's atmosphere. The ball weighs 3 grams, only about 1/15th the weight of a normal golf ball. It weighs less to minimize any damage should it actually strike something.

Like many golfers, Tyurin spent several minutes trying to get comfortable addressing the ball, but unlike his Earth-bound counterparts, at times he was upside down. He was tethered to the space station and had astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria holding on to him.

With Moscow Mission Control deliberating on how to position the ball on the tee, Tyurin, a veteran spacewalker but rookie golfer who was already more than an hour late, was cranky about the advice.

''The ball is the least of our concerns,'' Tyurin said. ''It's me that is supposed to be positioned properly.''

NASA spacewalk commentator Rob Navias, who was not broadcasting in golf's traditional hushed tones, noted that Tyurin's shot sliced to the right. An agitated Tyurin opted not to take a planned second or third shot.

For a few tense minutes it looked like Tyurin might miss his tee time and spacewalk entirely when his space suit overheated and the bulky hatch door got stuck.

Tyurin told flight controllers in Moscow that his spacesuit was too hot probably because of an excessively kinked cooling hose. Eventually, the suit started cooling, Tyurin got back in, and the tee time was a go.

After Tyurin's golf shot, Tyurin and Lopez-Alegria were slated to install science experiments, retract a stuck antenna on an attached cargo ship, and check out some bolts.

Tyurin's shot was not the first in space. Astronaut Alan Shepard took a swing on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971.

Last summer, Tyurin received golf lessons from PGA Director of Instruction Rick Martino and World Golf Hall of Famer Carol Mann.

Martino and Mann met Tyurin on July 20 at South Shore Harbour Country Club in League City, Texas, some 10 minutes from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Appropriately enough, the lesson occurred on the 37th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 module lunar landing and the first man on the Moon.

"I was honored to meet him, and I am in awe of what it takes to operate in that program," said Mann, a PGA member since 2002, and winner of 38 Tour titles. "It's a thrill to be involved in something that will bring more attention to golf."

Martino and Mann agreed that their golf lesson with Tyurin, a former college hockey player who lives outside Moscow, was one of the most challenging of their careers.

"We were teaching a beginning golfer, but we first had to learn the restrictions and physical dimensions that Mikhail would encounter while preparing to hit a golf ball into outer space," said Martino. "We began by developing his grip, and judging how he would hold the golf club in front of himself while wearing a heavy suit, tethered and his legs braced against the Station.

"Next, we stressed that he should stay in his posture. He practiced grip, posture and rotating the club in an arc and staying in balance."

As Tyurin got more comfortable with his instructors, he also found that he could make solid contact with a 6-iron. Martino and Mann explained that Tyurin could not make a full swing and worked to restrict his swing "lane" around his body.

"When his posture bent forward, I tried to tell him to straighten his back, and he didn't understand," said Mann. "So, I said, 'military posture,' and he immediately understood me.

"You should have seen the look on his face when he hit the ball flush. He hit it probably more than 70 yards. When you consider what he went through already -- and what he plans to do to train for this -- we really don't know how easy we have it on Earth when it comes to this game!"

Following the golf lesson, the teachers and their student dined in Houston. Mann said that she could not forget the innocent remark Tyurin made just before they parted.

"Mikhail said, 'What if I don't have the proper form? Will it still be OK?' "

"Mikhail said that he couldn't get enough of the enjoyment of hitting a golf ball," added Martino. "After our lesson had ended, he couldn't stop hitting balls. He asked me for a copy of the PGA Manual of Golf to take into space and study during his voyage. He said that upon his return to Earth he has plans to become a golfer."

November 23, 2006

 




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