This article first appeared in Issue 4 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS.
For all of human history, and probably before, people have tried to put any new environment or technology to use for the purposes of food, alcohol, sex, or sport. It’s unlikely space will be any different. Growing food in space has turned out to be a difficult, but possible, task. Sex and home-brewed superstrength alcohol are likely to be big marketing tools for future space hotels, so it’s no surprise companies are planning for an era of sport in space, too.
Just because some people have big dreams, however, doesn’t mean they’ll come to fruition. There are a lot of obstacles to making space sports more than a novelty.
Space sports: a history
Probably the first performance of sport in space came when astronaut Alan Shepard hit some golf balls on the Moon during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. It wasn’t exactly a professional effort – he didn’t even challenge his crewmate Edgar Mitchell to a round. Instead, Shepard’s efforts served as a demonstration of how even a one-handed swing with a makeshift six-iron could send the ball “miles and miles” in the low lunar gravity and absence of wind resistance, or at least so it seemed.
Reanalysis of the mission’s footage reveals the true flight path was about 36 meters (118 feet), presumably reflecting how hard the suit made hitting the ball squarely. Shepard and Mitchell also tried javelin throws with a solar wind collector, which Mitchell claimed to have narrowly won.
The following year, Charlie Duke and John Young conducted a “Second Moon Olympics” to celebrate the fact the Earthly event was coming up. The pair claimed to set records for the javelin and high jump, but after Young could have died falling on his back further leaps were abandoned.
Brief missions in cramped spacecraft don’t really lend themselves to sporting contests, but as missions have extended and craft got a little roomier, sport beyond Earth’s atmosphere has revived. Astronauts have tossed frisbees and footballs around and hit balls with miniature hockey sticks, although no actual contests have been reported.
Cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov was scheduled to hit a golf ball off an attachment to the International Space Station so that it would circle the Earth many times before burning up in the atmosphere. Had it happened, it would have broken countless records, but the idea was postponed, and then canceled, despite the no doubt considerable funding on offer from a golfing equipment firm for the publicity.
As the balance of space travel shifts from hard-working scientists to tourists with time on their hands, however, sports may have their day.
The new space sports
It's more than 40 years since Carl Sagan suggested space yachting using solar wind. Lunar dune buggy racing and skiing on Mars are also popular suggestions, but maybe the space sports shouldn’t look quite so much like existing ones.
The existence of an organization called the Space Games Federation might seem deeply premature, but it’s an indication some people are very serious about a sporting space race. “Our focal points are entertainment, engagement, and education,” founder Linda Rheinstein told Space.com in January. "We see new playing fields, new rules and taking new and traditional competitive organized sports to parabolic aircraft, spaceships, space stations … the Moon, Mars and beyond."
The federation ran a contest inviting people to propose microgravity sports, be they adaptations of existing ones or entirely new concepts.
Finding out if you’re better at laying a foot on a ball in three dimensions than your companions could become the equivalent of a game of tennis at a holiday resort.
These were narrowed to 16 entries, all of which could theoretically be played inside space stadiums, but the practicality of many remained up for debate.
From these, five semifinalists were chosen based on principles such as throwing a magnetized ball through a hoop with the same polarity, a version of dodgeball with more ease of movement in all directions, and astronauts racing to tie knots while tethered together.
Social space sports
The ethics of space tourism are hotly debated, but it’s certain to grow. Proponents are spending the GDPs of small nations to grab a share of what they expect to be an immense industry, which raises the question of what people will do once they are in space if they’re not there to perform scientific research.
Just staring out the window as the satellite passes over Earth may be enough for some, but most space tourists are probably looking for a more complete microgravity experience. Finding out if you’re better at laying a foot on a ball in three dimensions than your companions could become the equivalent of a social game of tennis at a holiday resort.
Professional space sports leagues
A pastime for space tourists is one thing, but some have much more lucrative ambitions. “Sports are going to be a big part of space evolution. When you look at the sponsorship money that goes into the NFL or NBA, this is a no-brainer,” John Spencer of the Space Tourism Society told the Wall Street Journal.
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The Sports Games Federation’s Equal Space Council advisory body is made up of retired professional athletes, sports broadcasters, and film producers who could certainly make a big contribution to promoting a space league. To secure a share of the revenue, companies have started trademarking names and logos, such as Sports In Space, whose goal is “organizing and sanctioning games and sports competitions played in zero and microgravity.” However, more detail is hard to find, and it’s not clear if efforts like this are serious or speculative. Moreover, the trademark for another company, ZERO GRAVITY SPORTS, turns out to be for tabletop games rather than anything played in orbit. Perhaps they’re hedging their bets.
The obstacles to overcome
For all the enthusiasm, making a profitable business out of space sports may be harder than the boosters acknowledge.
Novelty value alone will probably mean plenty of Earth-based eyeballs for the first professional space sports, particularly if they involve athletes that offer big-name recognition. Getting people to tune in regularly enough to cover the inevitable immense costs could be a different matter, and the costs really will be… astronomical.
For the moment space sports remain a little pie in the sky (and any “sport” that involves pie fights in space is definitely not recommended).
Even if the anticipated reductions in costs for space launches are met, it’s not going to be cheap getting people into low Earth orbit for a contest. Team sports, particularly those that require many players, will be more expensive still. Building a stadium could be the biggest cost of all – there’s a reason conditions on the International Space Station are so cramped. To take advantage of microgravity's effects and ensure plenty of spectacle, sports in space will probably need large playing fields.
Then there is the problem that muscles and bones waste away during prolonged periods in space, to the point where even very fit astronauts often faint on returning to Earth and can take a long time to recover. Spending the offseason in space is a sure way to kill the career of any ground-based athlete.
Indeed, for all Spencer and Rheinstein’s enthusiasm, for the moment space sports remain a little pie in the sky (and any “sport” that involves pie fights in space is definitely not recommended).
Any space sports league will have to overcome the fact that people mostly prefer to watch sports they grew up with, whether watching or playing. Sports with immense appeal in their home market struggle to attract viewers in places where they weren’t a part of childhood. New sports that do take off are usually those, like car racing, where people have experience of something comparable, albeit more low-key.
Unfortunately, familiar sports just don’t translate all that well to microgravity, and unfamiliar ones might have little more than novelty value.
One space sport with saturation coverage and using some familiar faces might make an impact, but there’s no agreement on what that would be. Years after the semifinalists in the Equal Space Challenge were announced, the website declared them all winners. The contest looks much more successful as an educational tool to get students thinking about the physics of microgravity rather than a path to inventing a sport many people would watch.
Generations of science fiction writers don’t seem to have solved the problem either.
The Moon and Mars
Microgravity might not be a suitable location for existing sports, but low gravity environments like the Moon and Mars are a very different matter.
More flexible space suits should finally make Shepard’s claim true, and future visitors to the Moon may be keen to reenact his efforts while wearing more flexible protection. Nevertheless, when it comes to sports in space, golf isn’t likely to be a particularly popular example. After the thrill of hitting the ball out of sight wears off, who wants to have to trudge all that way to get it, let alone try to putt on the dusty lunar surface? And if the ball goes down a lava tube, it’s toast.
On the other hand, basketball or volleyball games where players can leap tall (OK, small) buildings in a single bound would appeal to social players and watching fans alike. All we need is for Moon missions to become so routine that sponsors can afford to send multiple teams of athletes, support staff, and food. Oh, and a lunar stadium big enough there’s no danger of players hitting their heads on the roof when they jump. Simple really.
CURIOUS magazine is a digital magazine from IFLScience featuring interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts, and much more. Issue 7 is out now.