Playing Sports in Space


It is something innate to human beings wherever we go, we must play. Sport is inevitable, even in space, as was demonstrated this week when astronaut Garrett Reisman threw out the ceremonial first pitch for a Yankees-Red Sox baseball game from the International Space Station.

It's not the first time a pitch has been thrown from space. In 1995, the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia threw out a pitch before game five of the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees.

Baseball in space isn't new, not that anyone can organize a team with three people on the space station, but astronauts usually bring mementos from their favorite teams into orbit with them.

Astronaut Michal Lopez Alegria brought a baseball from the 1984 World Series to the space station last year; it was autographed by then-baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth. His colleague, Suni Williams, was a rabid Red Sox fan who ran during the Boston Marathon on a treadmill onboard the space station.

What games do the astronauts actually play on the space station?

Cmdr. Peggy Whitson organizes relay races. Whitson says it's a lot of fun, but admits it is slightly hazardous.

"We had two teams of three astronauts and we raced from one end of the space station, relayed with a person waiting at the other end three modules away and raced back and set up with a third person," Whitson said. "It was pretty fun."

Her team won.

Reisman says they accidentally discovered another sport they could play while filling up water bottles.

"We realized how massive these bags were and we started tossing them kind of like a medicine ball," Reisman said. "Then you realize you could toss and catch and go for a ride on this big thing as it takes you away. There are all kinds of possibilities and if there are any ideas out there let us know and we will try it."

Footballs, Frisbees, boomerangs, all kinds of sports paraphernalia have also gone into orbit.

Christer Fuglesang was the first Swedish astronaut to fly into space. He brought a Frisbee with him to see if he could break the world record for time aloft 16.72 seconds which he did, aided by zero gravity.

On the most recent flight to the space station, Japan's Taka Doi checked out the aerodynamics of a boomerang. Would it return to him when thrown in zero gravity? Yes, Doi said.

"I was very surprised to see that it flew the same way it does on Earth," he said.

Thirty-five years ago during Apollo 14, astronaut Alan Shepard Jr. became the first person to hit a golf ball on the moon a golf ball that is still sitting there.

Shepard pulled out two golf balls and unfolded a collapsible golf club specially made for the occasion. He became the first ever to hit golf shots on the moon, despite thick gloves and a cumbersome spacesuit that forced him to swing the club with only one hand.

A few years ago a Canadian golf club manufacturer paid the Russian space agency to have a gold plated golf ball knocked into orbit during a spacewalk by Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev.

Reisman says the astronauts are always looking for suggestions on what they could do in space for fun.

"It would be neat to invent it. It is something I have though about, but I haven't come up with any answers," Reisman said. "There are unique sporting things you could play in this environment."

There are challenges though, says Whitson.

"It takes skill [to] throw objects in space. You have to develop that skill," she said. "Moving in space very quickly requires some skill, overcoming an opponent requires some skill, so I think there will be lots of new games that come up."

Former astronaut Dan Barry, a veteran of three spaceflights who now builds robots, has given this some thought. His suggestion for the perfect sport in space?

Quidditch, the fictional sport developed by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter books.



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