NEW YORK – Last night (August 21) astronauts made history by playing the very first tennis match in space on board the international space station. The contest was projected live on a huge globe in Queens, New York, where a crowd of space and tennis enthusiasts gathered to view the historic event.
NASA astronaut and space station commander Drew Feustel played fellow NASA astronauts Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Ricky Arnold together with astronaut Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency in the microgravity doubles.
During the heated race – the full video of the event can be seen here – the astronauts struggled with the limitations of a microgravity environment (while ensuring that they did not damage the station). But Feustel was well prepared: he is a lifelong tennis fan and he got a number of pre-match tips from professional tennis player Juan M. del Potro, which he described on Twitter.
That was a nice chat with @delpotrojuan Thanks for the tips, I need all the help I can get for tonight's game. See if you can from 8:30 to 9:30 ET on USOpen FB, Twitter and YouTube. First tennis match in space! #TminusNetGeneration https://t.co/B3Gnd9MtoQ
– A.J. (Drew) Feustel (@Astro_Feustel) August 21, 2018
The astronauts used small tennis rackets and a tennis ball to play equipment designed to be safe on board the space station. "You really do not want to break a window or something," Gordon Smith, executive director of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) told Space.com. The event took place at the Unisphere, a huge globe at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, which once formed the center of the New York World's Fair of 1964-1965. The cosmic tennis match was projected on the Unisphere.
Feustel predicted that the game could be a bit like the classic video game "Pong" and it turned out that he was right. Because of the lack of gravity the ball did not hit and, once hit, he went straight until he was hit again.
But while the astronauts hit the tennis ball in microgravity over an improvised net, they floated around themselves. So they stood for the extra struggle of trying to stay upright to get the ball to the right location.
Feustel and Arnold, referred to by Feustel as the "assistant of the commander" (a reference to the television series "The Office"), eventually secured victory in the alien tennis match.
But despite winning the match, Feustel made it clear that playing tennis in space is not a simple task. "I feel a bit hurt," Feustel said afterwards. "It was a difficult match and playing in microgravity is difficult."
– US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 22, 2018
Smith, who presented the projected competition to an enthusiastic audience of space and tennis enthusiasts, is delighted that space and tennis come together: "What's cooler?" he said. He also told Space.com that the USTA is "about innovation, and I think tennis in space is innovative."
As for the future of space tennis, Smith said he is hopeful about extra alien competitions. "I think we should have a regular competition in space," he told Space.com. "I think the astronauts are competing for who will become the best tennis player in space."