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August 23, 2018

Tennis on the International Space Station is as weird as it sounds

by John_A

Well, it was hardly reminiscent of a brutal Federer/Nadal clash, and didn’t even come close to what you might witness down your local tennis club on a Sunday afternoon, but it was, at least, one of the weirdest tennis matches you’re ever likely to see.

Tennis in space. It’s never been tried before, and after watching how this week’s game went on the International Space Station (ISS), you’ll probably be thinking that maybe it should’ve stayed that way.

The event, organized by NASA and the U.S. Tennis Association, was designed to show how astronauts spend their leisure time and stay fit during their multi-month stays on the ISS, as well as to inspire young tennis players to take a greater interest in space exploration.

The unusual event was projected live onto a giant globe at Flushing Meadows, New York, where the annual U.S. Open tennis tourney takes place. A crowd of space and tennis fans, both young and old, turned up to enjoy the historic happening.

But before the first ball was hit, NASA astronaut and current ISS commander Drew Feustel talked about some of their preparations for the game. For example, they’d decided to use a soft, squishy tennis ball so that any erratic smashes by the players wouldn’t damage an important part of the space station’s machinery, rendering the entire satellite useless, or worse, sending it barreling off into oblivion. All because of a game of tennis.

As for the tennis racket, it looked about a quarter of the regular size. Either that or Feustel is a really massive guy with huge hands. We’re guessing it’s the former.

The ISS commander noted that the main difference when it comes to playing tennis in space is the lack of gravity. This meant the ball would maintain a straight trajectory after being struck, and therefore never dip as it would in a regular tennis match back on terra firma. Getting your feet in position before hitting the ball — an important part of Earth-based tennis — would also be pretty much impossible for the space athletes.

“Play!”

Using a net comprising a pole with some yellow stuff hanging off it, the world’s first tennis match in space was finally ready to begin. On the “court” with the commander were fellow crew members Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Ricky Arnold, and Alexander Gerst.

As you can see from the video above, the speed of play is rather on the slow side, making it look as if the picture is stuck in slo-mo. A dramatic soundtrack attempts to inject some much-needed tension into the sluggish rallies, while it soon becomes clear that this is more “badminton with a ball” than a proper game of tennis.

By far the most entertaining part is when one of the players is shown drifting nonchalantly upside down — a feat never even achieved by Boris Becker during his famously acrobatic on-court shenanigans way back when.

In his post-match analysis, Feustel commented that it’d been a “difficult” game and that “playing in microgravity is tough.”

As the livestream came to an end, the space commander closed with an upbeat message for any kids out there who were still wondering about what it was they’d just witnessed. “Stay fit and stay focused on your dreams and your goals, and shoot for the stars,” he said.

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