ISSing me off

Contributed by
Nov 23, 2006

Alternate headline: Teeing Me Off

Well, despite many protests (here and here, for example) Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin went ahead and hit a golf ball off the International Space Station.

It was a stunt paid for by a golf club company, and the cash-strapped Russian Space agency eagerly accepted the money. I am of two minds about this, since I like the idea of private companies supporting space travel, but I also think it can go too far. Hitting the golf ball into space was a silly gimmick, but I also think it's stupidly dangerous. It only massed three grams, but at orbital speeds it could destroy another satellite. The odds are low, but why purposely increase the amount of junk floating in space?

The company has already jumped in and, according to a peeved-sounding NASA official, grossly exaggerated what happened, too:

That drive went 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) — or will by the time it eventually comes down in a couple years — said Nataliya Hearn, the president of Element 21 Golf Company. [...]

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 (1.6 million kilometers).

I'll say I'm surprised the ball will come down as quickly as a few days. That implies it will dip pretty low into our atmosphere, which will slow it and drop it more. I wouldn't think a guy in spacesuit would be able to hit it hard enough to change the orbit of the ball that much.

Anyway, I can't leave this issue without noting some Bad Astronomy by NASA:

NASA spacewalk commentator Rob Navias, who was not broadcasting in golf's traditional hushed tones, noted that Tyurin's shot sliced to the right.

That's a joke, of course, but the pedant in me must point out that a golf slice happens due to the way the spinning golf ball interacts with the air. There's no air up there. That's why, in space, no one can hear you yell "Fore!"

Anyway, I fear this will not be the last of the dumb things done to make money in space. I'm not sure how much to worry about space banners, for example, which will be big lit-up banners in orbit hawking commercial products; this has been proposed realistically and could do serious damage to ground-based astronomy. The list goes on and on. I'm not a big fan of regulating what goes on in space, but if garbage like this golf shot keeps up, I may change my mind.

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