How are NASA golf balls different?

How did NASA change the dimples on golf balls? See more sports pictures.
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Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin awkwardly braced his bulky space suit against the exterior of the International Space Station. While a colleague steadied his feet, Tyurin used a golf club strapped to the outside of his space suit and took a swing at a golf ball suspended in a mesh met. "All right. There it goes," announced Tyurin to ground controllers [source: Goddard]. Accelerating to more than four times the speed of sound, the tiny ball vanished from view. Element 21, the Canadian golf manufacturer that had paid for the stunt, was delighted.

According to NASA estimates, Tyurin's ball spun around the earth for three days -- traveling for hundreds of thousands of miles until it burned up in the Earth's atmosphere. Hailing from a small city in the western part of the Soviet Union, Tyurin had never strapped on a pair of golf shoes in his life. But 220 miles (354 kilometers) above the Pacific Ocean, he effortlessly pulled off history's longest golf stroke.

Tyurin isn't the only golfer using the space program to get a leg up on his golf game. In the mid-1990s, the Tennessee-based Wilson Sporting Goods Company used NASA technology to craft a line of high-tech golf balls designed to fly further than ever before. The key was in the dimples -- the tiny craters arranged on a golf ball's exterior. Dimples had been featured on golf balls ever since the early 20th century, but manufacturers were never sure which dimple pattern made for the best ball. In the lab, they'd simply try out numerous different sizes and configurations of dimples until they settled on whichever design seemed to send the ball farthest.

Wilson teamed up with NASA to crunch the numbers of what makes the perfect dimple pattern. Using technology that had originally tested the space shuttle's orange external fuel tank, engineers put together a computer model showing the exact aerodynamics of a ball. Armed with the new knowledge, Wilson designers set about crafting a mathematically perfect golf ball.

The result was the Wilson Ultra 500, a ball that took small, medium and large dimples and arranged them into precise pyramids that would ensure smooth airflow over the entire surface of the ball. The Ultra 500 was "the most symmetrical ball surface available, sustaining initial velocity longer and producing the most stable ball flight for unmatched accuracy and distance," claimed Wilson. To this day, the gift shop at Florida's Kennedy Space Center usually has a few boxes of Wilson's space-age golf balls on hand.

If NASA can make golf balls go further, can they make your golf shoes smell better? Read on to find out how.