Golf or Science: What is NASA’s Plan for the Space Station?

By Keith Cowing
February 28, 2006
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Golf or Science: What is NASA’s Plan for the Space Station?

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Earlier this month, Element 21 Golf Company, a Canadian golf club manufacturer, revealed publicly that it had an arrangement with Russia whereby a cosmonaut would perform an EVA and hit an instrumented golf ball off of the space station into its own orbit.

The press release claimed that “Through the collaborative efforts of six nations and members of the NASA, Canadian, Russian space agencies and the Rocket Building Corporation Energy, every single record for distance in the golf industry will be shattered when one of the International Space Station’s astronauts will hit an E21 golf ball around the world — using an E21, pure gold plated club.”

The golf gear was flown aboard a Progress cargo flight, which docked with the ISS in September 2005. Before he returned to Earth, Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev practiced the EVA golf swing inside the ISS – within the Service Module, part of the Russian Segment of the ISS.

This isn’t the first time someone has sought to perform a golf stunt in space: Astronaut Alan Shepherd smacked a few golf balls off of the Moon during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. Such things – saying hello to Olympians, Super Bowl audiences, and NASCAR race attendees often serve to provide a link between our everyday lives and space. That’s fine. But stunts have their place: when they don’t deter from other tasks or risk injury to crew and hardware.

On the moon, with the exception of his crew’s Lunar Module, Shepherd had nothing to hit with his golf ball projectiles. Aboard the ISS that is a different matter all together.

Although various sources claim that Russia has studied the issue and is seemingly unperturbed about the prospect of someone standing outside the ISS, swinging a long metal rod and deliberately striking an object such that it departs the ISS without hitting anything, NASA isn’t so sure.

Rather, NASA hasn’t completed the required safety analyses to decide if they are concerned. But, lacking these safety reviews, they allowed – or (more accurately) did not block – the launch of the golf gear.

As I noted on NASA Watch, given NASA’s decision to scrap a large amount of space station science, not fly research hardware and modules, and limit space shuttle support of the orbiting research lab (what it was sold Congress as being built for), the question has to be asked: is the hosting of golf stunts the best use of limited resources on such an expensive project? Indeed, is this the right message to be sending to the taxpayers who continue to pay for this project?

Seeking More Information

On the afternoon of 27 February 2006 I sent the following questions to Allard Beutel, the public affairs representative at NASA HQ’s Space Operations Mission Directorate:

I have some formal questions with regard to the Element 21 Golf Co. golf EVA stunt aboard the ISS.

Will NASA be issuing any formal statement with regard to the golfing in space event? If so when will this statement be released?

Does the U.S. need to be informed and/or give approval for this activity? If so when was NASA informed and when did NASA give its approval?

Has NASA performed a safety assessment of the event? If so will you be releasing that assessment? Does NASA have any safety concerns with this event as it is currently being planned? If so, what are NASA’s concerns – and have they been communicated to Russia?

Are any ISS safety waivers being granted to allow this activity to proceed? If so, can you specify which safety requirements are being waived and the rationale for the waiving of these regulations?

How close will the golf ball get to ISS on subsequent orbits? Does it present an orbital debris concern for NASA?

Are U.S. personnel involved in any aspect of this activity – in orbit or on the ground? If so what is their role and will their time be paid for by Roscosmos and/or the event’s sponsor?

Will this event be accomplished when the STS-121 mission is docked to the ISS? If so what waivers (if any) have been granted for Shuttle and ISS safety requirements so as to allow this event to proceed?

Are there any ISS EVA requirements that have been modified to allow this event to proceed? Will an American be outside the ISS during this EVA? If so where will he be located, will he participate in any way in this activity, and what American EVA requirements (if any) have been modified/waived to allow this event to proceed?

If this event leads to damage to the outside of the ISS is the sponsor of this event liable? If the U.S. Segment is damaged (internally or externally) is the sponsor liable? Has the sponsor taken out insurance on any possible damage to U.S. Segment hardware?

NASA’s Response

Promptly, the next morning, I got a reply (quick replies are always the case with Allard) back – which I have annotated with my responses back to NASA. To be fair, Allard can only has the information that people in the various program and project office provide him with to work with in formulating official responses. That said, here is what I got back from NASA, and my reaction to what they said:

BEUTEL: Keith, you’re ahead of where we are in reviewing this.

COWING: Thanks for your prompt reply – but in all honesty I should not be “ahead” of NASA on this. Indeed, if I were NASA I’d be profoundly embarrassed if this were indeed the case.

BEUTEL: We know about what they would like to do and are actively gathering data to do the proper analysis to make sure the crew and station itself will be safe. This is being worked through the normal safety process. The Russians approached us with this concept and we agreed to transport the equipment to the station with the understanding that we would review all aspects of this prior to performing the spacewalk.

COWING: The golf club and golf balls were on a Progress flight last September. Based on your comments – and given the precious upmass commodity that Progress flights represent – I would assume NASA had some insight into that Progress’ manifest prior to that flight – which would make it 6 months or longer that NASA has been (or should have been) aware of the presence of golf clubs and golf balls on ISS – and what Russia wanted to do with them. Heck, they even have pictures of Krikalev practicing for this inside the Service Module – and yet you still haven’t done a formal safety analysis? When did the formal safety process on this stunt begin? This doesn’t strike me as the safety process I once worked under at NASA – in essence this is an example of “prove its unsafe” before shipping as opposed to “prove it is safe”. That phrase should sound familiar.

BEUTEL: This is a very common practice to approve transportation and wait for a more formal safety review. The crews have been trained in the operation and the teams are exchanging detailed technical data.

COWING: Do you really mean that this stuff was flown into space before a “more formal safety review” was done? Then does that mean that there was a “less formal safety review” conducted? If so, what were the results? What other things get flown like this? I guess I am confused as to how/why you’d train a crew on a procedure before the safety aspect has been conducted – something which would then be worked into the training regimen. Or will they be re-trained once that safety review is done? That does not sound too efficient. This all sounds like this is being done backwards to me – and if this is “common practice” then I have to wonder what else is being handled in this fashion.

BEUTEL: We are in the review process with the Russians on many of the questions that you have asked. The Russians have provided preliminary safety data, and the experts are exchanging data.

COWING: Why is this being done after the fact?

BEUTEL: This event would be performed during a Russian spacewalk.

COWING: Yea – with an American participating.

BEUTEL: The space station program’s extravehicular activity office, operations office and mission management team all are evaluating this event. Each of these groups also includes a representative from Safety & Mission Assurance. As always, both the Russian and U.S. safety experts will make sure this is safe before moving forward. We will be able to provide more direct answers to your questions when the safety review is complete. We don’t have a time on that yet.

COWING: In other words, given that this will be conducted “this summer” according to media reports, a lapse of almost 3/4 year exists between a final operational safety assessment such that the hardware can be used – and the shipping of this hardware to orbit. Are all such safety reviews lagging this far behind?

BEUTEL: I hope this helps.

COWING: Your prompt reply (as always) is helpful — but this all sounds like an after the fact response. i.e. that Russia just goes off and just does things and tells NASA after the fact. Either that or NASA has started to relax (or not equally apply) its safety process as it relates to things being flown up to ISS.

Editor’s note: during a Heads of Agency press conference on 2 March 2006 I asked Michael Griffin and Anatoly Perminov the following question. Griffin partially answered my question. Perminov did not evven bother to try and answer it.

QUESTIONER: Keith Cowing at NASAWatch.com.

A question for Dr. Griffin and Mr. Perminov. In a few months, a cosmonaut is going to go out and do an EVA and knock a golf ball off of the International Space Station. At the same time, NASA is going to be canceling a significant amount of research that was going to be done on the Space Station, research that was promised for decades and indeed was cited as the reason for doing it. In addition, space science is being cut back, as we just heard in a hearing a few minutes ago up on Capitol Hill to pay for this.

Is this the right message to be sending to taxpayers in America, Russia, Europe, and Japan that it’s okay to do a stunt like this, but cutting back on the science, and indeed, is this worth the billions of dollars and rubles and yen and euros that have been spent on this project where stunts are more important than science?

DR. GRIFFIN: No one is saying that stunts are more important than science. We are doing all of the science that our budget allows us to do, and I think you know that quite well because we have had previous discussions on this.

If we had a bigger budget, we would do more science. We are doing what we can.

In fact, the partners, per the terms of the intergovernmental agreements, have the right to propose and to conduct commercial activities on the Station, provided that all appropriate safety considerations have been dealt with. We are not at the end of that particular road as yet, but we will pursue it. But should there not be a safety issue, then the effort proposed by Roskosmos is a revenue-generating opportunity, not a source of expenditures, and so I do not see it as being opposed to scientific or engineering research at all.


MR. PERMINOV: [through interpreter] To confirm the decisions which have been taken in that regard, definitely right now our priority — and as correctly said, our priority remains to deliver the hardware to the Station. However, due to the delivery of that hardware and scientific modules, that will give us a better chance to continue and to develop well the scientific programs on the Station, conduct more research.

I think it will get better for all of us if those modules which are planned to be delivered will be delivered there as soon as possible, and if we push that schedule to the left, that will be to all of our benefit in terms of the scientific research.

Thank you.

Putting things into Context

Clearly NASA has a lot of work ahead of it on this specific issue. The golf gear is in orbit, press releases have been issued, and once again Russia is intent upon doing something on their part of the ISS. To be fair, there is not much the U.S. can do. Russia can pretty much do whatever it wants with its spacecraft and its portion of the ISS – as was aptly demonstrated when they flew Dennis Tito to the ISS while NASA could only wave its arms in protest. NASA needs to have a rather good reason to try and block something like this. It would seem that they didn’t at the time they’d have needed to raise the concern.

Also, unlike the U.S., Russia is not exactly awash in cash with which to support its space activities. For Russia, commercial activities such as allowing tourists to visit the ISS and other commercial endeavors have made the difference between having a space presence and not having one. Moreover, commercialization is not a bad thing. Rather if done properly – or left to function on its own, commercial projects could be a great way to augment and enhance existing and planned government activities.

Lastly, were it not for some extreme flexibility on the part of Russia, we might not even have Americans in space right now – or at any time in the past several years.

What’s the Problem?

When you ask NASA about this project, NASA has no pre-coordinated response (they’ve had 6 months to prepare one). They react only after the fact. Indeed, many people at NASA were either caught off guard by this or were embarrassed to admit that they knew about it. Moreover, NASA did not volunteer any information months ago when they could have done so. To be certain, this is a commercial project between non-U.S. parties and NASA is not a formal participant – but the U.S. is most certainly affected.

More troubling, however, is the fact that NASA safety reviews seem to be held after the fact – after the hardware is in orbit – and crew training has begun. To be certain, a Russian cosmonaut will stand outside the Russian segment and hit the ball away from the U.S. portion of the space station. But this is a single space vehicle. Damaging one part can easily have an effect on other parts. Moreover, the U.S. is intimately involved in the performance of this stunt. An American astronaut will be involved in this EVA. Is E21 paying for his services – or is he doing this on government time?

Reading NASA’s response to my questions, one has to wonder if any of the people in the response chain recall what the CAIB report said about this. By its actions, NASA seems to have slipped into the mode of “prove to me that its not safe” rather than “prove to me that it is safe”.

Where’s the big picture?

Given that the space station science that was promised to taxpayers – and used as an excuse to secure Congressional funding for decades – is now being cut, it would stand to reason that NASA should think these things out a little bit more. Images are important. NASA is cutting science on the space station – but NASA is also helping the Russians charge for a golf stunt during an EVA – on the very same space station. That doesn’t look – or sound – good.

The golf gear has been in orbit for six months – and (one would hope) NASA knew about this stunt well before the launch. The fact that NASA is scrambling for answers only now – after the media came across the story – does not speak well for a clear idea (within NASA) of what America intends to use its current multi-billion space investment for. There is no thinking ahead – no “Strategic Communications” at work here. NASA just lurches, in reactionary mode from one PR headache to another.

There doesn’t seem to be any urgency on NASA’s part to explain this stunt. Nor do they seem to have a clue that they are creating fodder for more late night TV jokes.

More troubling is the fact that NASA is now telling Congress that it has lost interest in this current project (ISS) and yet that it wants to start another one – of ever greater scope and cost – on the surface of the Moon.

If, after 20 years of designing and building the ISS just 100 or so miles overhead, NASA can’t figure out what this huge investment is supposed to do to warrant the time and expense, what assurance do any of us have that they can explain why going back to the moon has any clear purpose – and if it does, what that purpose is.

Trust me, I think there is a purpose to going to the Moon and on to Mars. Many of them, in fact. But the tired mantra of just saying “the President told us so” is just not enough. And it certainly won’t be enough once this President is back in Crawford.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.