Fifty years ago, Alan Shepard blasted from an endless sand trap and we just now found his ball – PennLive

Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard admires his second shot on the Moon during live broadcast on Feb. 6, 1971. He exclaimed that it went "miles and miles and miles" in the 1/6th gravity, though it seems that was a bit of an exaggeration.NASA
The most widely watched golf shot in history did not occur in a major tournament. It wasn’t even in a PGA event. In fact, it did not take place on Earth. And, as it turns out, its distance has been embellished by legend.
It was a one-handed chip with a converted Wilson Staff 6-iron club head adapted to an aluminum moon rock sample scooper. And the golfer was Alan Shepard, first American in space, 5th man on the Moon.
Shepard hit two golf balls on live television exactly half a century ago yesterday at the end of the Apollo 14 moonwalk. Because of the portable TV camera’s perpendicular angle to the flight of the ball, exactly how far the shots went was left up to the commentary of the jocular original “Mercury seven” astronaut. The first one, he clearly duffed.
But the second one appeared to be nutted and Shepard suggested it might’ve gone “miles and miles!”
Well, not exactly. But who’s keeping track?
Nobody really, until a 46-year-old British imaging specialist named Andy Saunders used his skills to enhance the clarity of long-sequestered video and photography from Apollo 14 and other moon missions. And the results are nothing short of astounding.
Saunders’ painstaking work used both new digital and traditional photo techniques to improve the brightness, sharpness and contrast of the 5-decade-old Apollo moon program (1968-72) shots so that we now can see more clearly all sorts of details hidden before – from the desolate gray surface to obscured faces of astronauts behind their helmet visors to intricate features of the lunar landers and equipment to, yes, the exact position of Shepard’s two golf shots.
Enhanced NASA photo that now clearly shows one of Alan Shepard's golf balls.Andy Saunders/NASA
Saunders’ photographs will be available later this year in a book entitled Apollo Remastered, to be published by Penguin Random House. Some have been posted and can be seen on the publisher’s advance website, ApolloRemastered.com.
Being the son of an industrial engineer at Apollo command/service module subcontractor North American Rockwell, I grew up amid the wonder of the U.S. space program. So, I was eager to spend a half hour on Friday with Saunders by phone from his home in Culcheth, Cheshire county, England.
As Saunders explains it, the original and clearest film negatives were socked away in NASA cold storage until very recently:
“Somewhere in the last five years, they finally got the original flight film out of the freezer and scanned it to an incredible resolution in about 1.3-gigabyte file sizes. And every minute detail that was in that camera is on this digital file.”
For someone like Saunders – a space nut since childhood who had developed considerable skill with image enhancing – this was like a gift from heaven.
“But of course, in an analog world, with photochemical processing, they weren’t designed for digital; they were designed to have light shining through them onto paper or in projection. So, you need to digitally enhance them to get the best out of them. And that’s what I’ve been using.”
British photo imaging specialist and author Andy Saunders will publish a book of his enhanced images of NASA's moon landings later this year, to be entitled "Apollo Remastered".Penguin Random House
Considering the advances in digital enhancement technology just over the past decade, this offered a unique opportunity to significantly clarify some of the most important images in human history.
So, how far did those 6-iron shots go in one-sixth gravity? That’s been a subject of hyperbolic conjecture, not just a little encouraged by the playful Shepard before his death in 1998.
We’ll get to that. But first some background on how Shepard managed to golf on Earth’s sand trap satellite in the first place. He had been seeded with the idea by an offhand crack from Bob Hope during the comedian’s visit to the Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston in 1970. The idea stuck with Shepard when he was slated for Apollo 14 later that year.
Shepard tells the entire story of the lunar golf shot at 1:02:30 of an 88-minute interview with former NBC spaceflight correspondent and Philadelphia native Roy Neal conducted in 1998, five months before the astronaut’s death from leukemia:
“I was an avid golfer. And before the flight, I was intrigued that a ball, with the same clubhead speed, would go six times as far and it’s time of flight would be at least six times as long. It would not curve, because there’s no atmosphere to make it slice or hook.
“So, I thought: What a neat place to whack a golf ball.”
When Shepard approached NASA manned spaceflight director Bob Gilruth with his idea, the response was immediate and emphatic: Forget about it. But Shepard persisted with an explanation: The only extra cargo was the clubhead, crafted by a pro he knew in Houston, plus a couple of golf balls:
“Which I paid for myself,” Shepard added with puckish grin. “No taxpayer expense.”
All of that would be left on the lunar surface. If anything at all went amiss during either of two 4½-hour extravehicular activities (EVA) on the Moon, Shepard agreed he wouldn’t do it. If everything went as planned, he’d hit a couple of balls at the very end of the second EVA on Feb. 6, 1971, climb up the ladder with partner and lunar module pilot Ed Mitchell and close the hatch.
In other words, it was sort of the mic drop of the show. And by that point in the Apollo program – with moon missions incredibly becoming old hat more than two years after the first lunar orbit of Apollo 8, and 18 months after the first manned landing of Apollo 11 – the show mattered. Gilruth relented.
The lunar 6-iron, used by NASA astronaut Alan Shepard during the Apollo 14 moonwalk on Feb. 6, 1971. A Houston golf pro friend of Shepard's made the club from a Wilson 6-iron head and a lunar-sample-scooper handle. Shepard later donated the club to the USGA museumGetty Images/Steve Pyke
As it turned out, all went swimmingly with Shepard and Mitchell’s EVA, so out came the modified club head and two balls the commander had stowed in a pocket in his suit. He snapped it on the moonrock scooper, tossed a ball in the dust and addressed it with some great flair.
Shepard knew from trying out his flexibility in the bulky suit during training that there was no way he could either manage much of a backswing or keep both gloved hands on the scooper handle. His vision was also limited by inability to bend his neck much inside the EVA helmet. So, he used his right hand only and tried a sort of flick at the ball like a gardener whacking weeds with a scythe.
His first stroke at the first ball barely moved it. The second try was shanked and obviously didn’t go far, prompting a mocking reaction from Mitchell. But after the third and final try, on a second ball, Shepard exclaimed as if he was Lee Trevino admiring a perfect drive: “Miles and miles and miles!” That’s the shot viewers imagined might’ve flown on and on, unencumbered by atmosphere.
Saunders has been working on all the Apollo moon footage for years now. Some of the results are stunning. In one, you can now clearly see Neil Armstrong’s face behind his visor, a rare shot anyway because he had the still camera for most of the EVA and almost all the lunar shots you see of Apollo 11 are of lunar module pilot and fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.
So, the Apollo 14 enhancement is only part of a massive project. But the Shepard golf ball search was an obvious attraction:
“Before, maybe you could find a golf ball in the old quality. It looked a bit like a rock even in the new high-res scans. But [now] you could zoom in so far, because they were in such high resolution, and process them hard enough that you could tell – that was definitely a golf ball.”
Wide-frame of Apollo 14 landing site with locations of divots and ball landing spots of Alan Shepard's golf shots.NASA
Saunders was able to find and triangulate the position of both balls using frontal and lateral still photos from the portable lunar camera and overhead photos from the video camera atop the ascent stage of the lunar module as it blasted off to return to the command module.
The conclusion: Shepard’s first shot went 24 yards. The landing spot of his second one, which had never before been glimpsed, was not in fact “miles and miles” away, as most who knew Shepard’s mischievous nature pretty much suspected – but a mere 40 yards.
Enhanced still frame taken from lunar ascent vehicle camera as Apollo 14 blasted from the lunar surface, including Shepard's golf balls and Ed Mitchell's "javelin" throw of an unused metal rod.Andy Saunders/NASA
Another tall golf tale. Saunders gives him all credit regardless:
“One-handed, quarter swing, can’t see properly, with that giant backpack on, hitting from effectively the biggest sand trap in the solar system? Well done.”
Theoretically, how far could a golf ball be driven on the moon by some bomber such as Bryson DeChambeau, given a hypothetical future in which humans could be protected from the extreme lunar temperatures in formfitting coveralls we can’t imagine today, maybe at some sort of sheltered lunar Topgolf franchise? Saunders did the math and says Shepard’s exaggeration would no longer be one: about 3.41 miles.
Alan Shepard was a man of myriad accomplishments including uncommon bravery as both a jet fighter test pilot, not to mention his mounting a Redstone rocket in 1961, previous editions of which had blown up on the pad, to be first American to ride the fire into space.
Yet, nuttily enough, he is still possibly best known 23 years after his death for being the only Moon golfer.
He probably wouldn’t mind, as he later affirmed of that 6-iron from a bad lie:
“It was designed to be a fun thing. Fortunately, it was a fun thing.”
More PennLive sports coverage:
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Why those who love college basketball the most loved John Chaney most of all.
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