I woke up this morning thinking about competitive sports in outer space. It’s certainly something that will soon be exercising the best minds at NASA as they think about the social and psychological difficulties of long-distance space travel. Competitive sports are an essential part of human life, combining physical exercise, entertainment and the practice of good manners. On the long journey to Mars (and hopefully back) these would all be mission critical.
Why these thoughts wandered into my semi-somnolent mind at 7 this morning, I don’t quite know, but it might be because I heard a snippet on the radio the other day about Ping-Pong at the international space station. I Googled ‘ping pong in outer space’ this morning and found this inspiring film of solo water Ping-Pong being played with hydrophobic bats:
But it’s a serious question. What sports should astronauts play on their way to Mars?
The challenge, of course, is the lack of gravity. There’s no up and down, no floor, so any game that depends on something bouncing off the ground won’t work. Many games are defined as forbidding that a ball should bounce more than once. There is no ground in space, so rules of that kind simply couldn’t work. That rules out tennis, and squash, at least in its terrestrial form.
The concept of a table might, I suppose, be made to work, so Ping Pong (table tennis) is a possibility (though not with a ball made of water). I fear, though, that manoeuvring around a table in zero gravity would pose too large a constraint. In space, unless you’re holding on to something, there’s nothing to brace yourself against whilst swiping, so this makes movements harder to control. Every movement of a limb in one direction would be balanced by a movement of the body in the opposite direction. Being constrained by the single plane of a ‘table’ would make a game too hard to play.
I see difficulties with football too, since giving primacy to the foot in the absence of a floor and of gravity, would surely be physically too difficult. Imagine playing football in a swimming pool.
Golf needs more space than NASA could afford. In addition, I can’t see how the ball would fall into the hole, or roll for that matter, or ever stop. Nothing would hold a ball to a surface, so friction wouldn’t do its usual thing of slowing movement down.
Cricket can’t satisfactorily be played without a substantial team, and needs umpires. You’d also need a spherical field, in three dimensions, and a large one. What would be the difference between a six and a four?
Better, in my view, to adapt the game of squash. Squash involves bouncing the ball off surfaces, including, but not limited to, a floor. All you need to do is to abolish the idea of the floor completely, allow unlimited bounces, face players against each other at either end of a triple-cube space, with small square ‘goals’ let into the centre of each end wall. A racket or paddle would be easy enough to wield. It would be a vigorous, skilful game.
The only challenge, though, would be to enable players to brace themselves against something (the wall) in preparation for a leap and swipe. If you were to let handles into the walls of the court you could no longer rely on a clean bounce in all circumstances, and that might lead to fractious behaviour. No, I think magnets would have to solve the problem. Make the walls out of steel and place some strong magnets in the fabric of the astronauts’ attire (in their shoes, shoulder pads and sleeves). They would have to be strong enough magnets to allow each player to cling to the wall, but not so strong as to prevent escape.
I played squash myself until recently, but gave it up when my Achilles tendons could no longer bear the strain created by mild overweight and gravity. In space I wouldn’t have problems of that kind. A new sporting career beckons. I will apply to NASA forthwith.