Image: Clay Anderson
NASA astronaut Clay Anderson, Expedition 15 flight engineer, poses for a photo with sports equipment in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station.
updated 4/25/2008 4:18:38 PM ET 2008-04-25T20:18:38

Astronauts, by necessity, work hard in space. But during their precious time off aboard the international space station, some spaceflyers are picking their brains to come up with the future of space sports.

"Sometimes, you just develop them by happenstance," said NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, who is living aboard the space station as an Expedition 17 flight engineer.

The mundane task of filling large water bags took on a whole new meaning, he said last week in a televised interview.

"We started tossing them kind of like a medicine ball, and we realized that you could toss and catch and then go for a ride on this big thing as it takes you away," Reisman said. "So there's all kinds of possibilities, and if there's any good ideas out there, let me know. We'll try it."

Last week, Reisman tossed out the opening pitch for his beloved New York Yankees during their game against the Boston Red Sox. After years of throwing baseballs in arcs to counter gravity, he had to relearn how to throw in a straight line, he said.

His former Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, who landed on April 19 with two crewmates, had a different tack. She held a flying relay race between the station's joint six-astronaut crew of the Expedition 16 and 17 crews.

"We raced from one end of a module, relayed with the person waiting at the other end three modules away, and then sprinted back and sent a third person," Whitson said. "So it was pretty fun."

Her team, which included Reisman, won, she added.

Image: Garrett Reisman
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
Seen on the large television screen at Yankee Stadium, Garrett Reisman throws out the first pitch from the international space station before the game between the Yankees and Red Sox on April 16.

Finding a sport
Space station astronauts are scheduled to work an average of about 6 1/2 hours each day, with about two hours set aside for exercise and about 8 1/2 reserved for sleep. But astronauts, like the rest of us, will squeeze in some fun during their off-hours.

"They're going to be creative, they're going to play with things," said Walter Sipes, a NASA psychologist specializing in long-duration spaceflight support at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "These might be lower priority activities, but they're higher on keeping the morale up."

While they don't have a sports locker, station astronauts do have some gear at their disposal, Sipes told

In addition to their space treadmill and stationary bike, they've played weightless basketball, Frisbee and tossed boomerangs, to name a few activities. But the rules change in the absence of gravity.

"It definitely takes skill to be able to throw objects in space," said Whitson, adding it has to be developed just like the ability to move in weightless conditions. "Overcoming an opponent requires some skill. I think there'll be a lot of new games that they come up with."

Low gravity games have gained some ground on Earth as well.

Passengers have played dodge ball and tag during short periods of weightlessness on the rollercoaster-like parabolic flights of a modified Boeing 727-200 jet operated by the Zero Gravity Corp., the Las Vegas, Nev.-based firm has said in the past.

On recent station missions, astronauts have performed their some own orbital versions of terrestrial athletics:

In March, Japanese astronaut Takao Doi threw a small boomerang aboard the station to see if it would come back without gravity. It apparently did, according to Japanese space agency officials. Last year, NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, ran the Boston Marathon from orbit in 4 hours, 24 minutes. In 2006, European astronaut Christer Fugelsang, a former Swedish national Frisbee champion, kept a Frisbee aloft inside the station for 20 seconds — thanks to the lack of gravity — to break the previous world record of 16.72 seconds for a single toss. Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin also whacked a golf ball outside the space station during a 2006 spacewalk, echoing Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard's tee off on the moon in 1971. Last year, NASA astronaut Clay Anderson used a football, baseball and make-shift bat to demonstrate the effects of weightless for students on Earth.

Judy Hayes, NASA's division chief of human adaptation and countermeasures at the Johnson Space Center, said mission planners sometimes work with astronauts to help fold their sports interests into their daily routines.

Williams' marathon run, for example, required the astronaut to squeeze extra training into her already packed worked day to prepare for the event, Hayes said. But the training and marathon also counted as her daily exercise allotment, she added.

"It's good for them to come up with creative ideas. It gives them some entertainment and helps them adapt," Hayes told "It's very individualized."

Image: Roomy spacecraft
Space Island Group
Roomy spacecraft could offer lots of space for playtime as depicted in this artist’s conception.

Teaming up in orbit
Since astronauts first began living aboard the space station in 2000, the outpost's primary crew has averaged about three people per mission, though two-man expeditions maintained the orbiting lab as NASA recovered from the 2003 Columbia shuttle tragedy.

But aside from Soyuz crew changes and visiting shuttles of up to seven astronauts, which push station population to between six and 10 people, a nominal three-person crew does not split well for competitive team sports.

That will change in 2009, when NASA and its partners plan to double the station's crew size to six astronauts per mission. With a larger crew, comes wider sport options, Sipes said.

"Naturally, when you get more people, you can certainly do other team-based activities," Sipes said. "And it's morale-building, crew cohesion-building, when you play those."

For Reisman, who will spend about three months aboard the station, there is time to come up with more new sports.

"I've thought about it, but haven't come up with any really good answers," he said. "There are all kinds of unique sporting things and games you could play in this environment."

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