Fifty years ago, two astronauts used the final moments of their trip to the Moon to make the regular Olympics look like a school sports day by hosting the "Lunar Olympics". However, it nearly ended in one astronaut's death.
"It was 1972, and there was going to be the Olympics in Munich that year, so we were going to do the 'Moon Olympics," Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke told Business Insider of the decision, although the idea "Moon Olympics" sort of justifies itself.
Duke and his commander, John Young, attempted several Earth events, knowing that the reduced gravity (about one sixth as powerful as that of the Earth) would help their attempts to smash Earth records. In one of the events, Young hurled a piece of equipment that was no longer needed like a javelin.
"Tony, I'm going out for the olympics," he said, according to NASA's official transcripts of the mission. "I just swung that little, that little gary bar on the ALSEP package, the crooked one about 200 meters [650 feet], it looked like. There goes the other one. It would be real wild on the hammer throw. Look at that beauty go."
"Outstanding, Charlie," Young replied, adding to NASA, "I'm sure he'll hold the record now."
The high jump turned out to be the part of the Olympic Games that are too dangerous to attempt on the Moon, though they didn't know that yet.
"I decided to join in and made a big push off the moon, getting about 4 feet [1.2 meters] high," Young explained in his book years later. "But as I straightened up, the weight of my backpack pulled me over backward. Now I was coming down on my back. I tried to correct myself but couldn't, and as my heart filled with fear I fell the 4 feet [1.2 meters], hitting hard – right on my backpack."
"Panic!" he continued. "The thought that I'd die raced across my mind. It was the only time in our whole lunar stay that I had a real moment of panic and thought I had killed myself. The suit and backpack weren't designed to support a 4-foot [1.2-meter] fall.
Had the backpack broken or the suit split open, I would have lost my air. A rapid decompression, or as one friend calls it, a high-altitude hiss-out, and I would have been dead instantly. Fortunately, everything held together."
The backpack – which contained all his life-support systems – weighed as much as Duke did, he later told Insider. His commander was unimpressed by the fall, telling him "that ain't very smart". Young agreed, saying "that ain't very smart. Well, I'm sorry about that."
The first Moon Olympics took place the year before on February 6, 1971, when astronauts Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell hurled a piece of a solar wind collector like a javelin. More famously, Shepherd took a golf club head to the Moon with him, attached it to the handle of a sample-collection tool, and hit several golf balls.
His first shots did not go well (you'll notice the pros don't favor golf club heads attached to sampling tools) skimming the top of the ball and sending it just a few feet. On the third swing, clearly motivated by this counting against his score, he connected and the ball flew out of shot on a fairly low trajectory. Shepard managed to hit the second ball on the first try, believing it had gone "miles and miles and miles".
One of the balls was found by fellow astronaut Edgar Mitchell in a nearby crater, but the second wasn't found until half a century later when imaging specialist Andy Saunders digitally enhanced scans of the original film taken during Apollo 14. Rather than the "miles and miles and miles" Shepard had thought he'd hit, Saunders' analysis revealed that, despite the low gravity on the Moon, the ball had not gone far at all.
"We can now fairly accurately determine that ball number one travelled 24 yards [22 meters]," Saunders wrote for the US Golfer's Association (USGA), "and ball number two travelled 40 yards [36 meters]."
Regardless, it was still a massive win for America in the first-ever Moon Olympics.