March 10, 2006 in Nation/World

In-space golf shot tees off critics

John Johnson Jr. Los Angeles Times
 

In what will easily be the longest 6-iron shot in golf history, a Russian 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 smash with a golf club will travel 2.1 billion miles in orbit before burning up in Earth’s 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 up, the event has drawn hisses from galleries of critics who fear 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 Web site that frequently challenges the space agency’s policies.

Speaking at a news 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.

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 have not yet reached retail outlets, according to a company official.

Scandium is currently used in light bulb filaments and, when alloyed with aluminum, bicycles, baseball bats and other gear.

“It’s very light and very strong,” Hearn said.

The idea to use the space station as a giant, floating golf tee 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 tee-off 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.

The 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 space walk this summer.

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