March 21, 2016 8:02 pm

Buzz Aldrin Talks March Madness and Basketball on the Moon and Mars

Photo of Dick Vitale and Buzz Aldrin for March Mayhem. Credit: NCAA.

Dick Vitale and Buzz Aldrin. Credit: NCAA.

Today’s guest blog post is by Stacey Severn, the StarTalk Radio Community Manager. Last week, Stacey had the opportunity to interview Buzz Aldrin about his NCAA basketball bracket – and the physics of playing basketball on the Moon or Mars.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing retired astronaut and Apollo 11 Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin about his NCAA basketball bracket picks. Aldrin is going head-to-head with sportscaster Dick Vitale in an effort to predict which teams will make it through to the end and claim victory in this year’s tournament. I asked Buzz if he and Vitale have compared notes, to which he chuckled and said, “Well, of course we have compared notes, how would I get so smart?”

Aldrin claims to be using somewhat of a scientific method in his selection, which includes an Allstate March Mayhem Challenge Bracket Predictor, coupling that with teams he likes (he’s favoring UConn and Kansas). Add to the mix a random selection of cards, which come up either black or red, and you get a method that he refers to as “precise and based on sound principles.”

Our conversation shifted to how playing basketball might be different in space, and what adaptations the players might need to play an extra-terrestrial game of hoops on the Moon or Mars. I could not wait to hear his insights: not only was Buzz Aldrin the second man to walk on the Moon, but he’s also an engineer with a Doctorate in Astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology!

StarTalk: With extremes of temperature and pressure, how might an inflated basketball react in space?

Buzz Aldrin: Well, there’s the same pressure on the inside and there’s much less on the outside, so I think it would tend to get bigger and bigger and spring a leak or explode. But there are other things. You could adjust the pressure to control the tightness of the sphere of the ball. Its mass is the same, except for a little bit less air inside.

StarTalk: What would happen when the ball was tossed?

Aldrin: When you toss it, it’s gonna have a different gravity force working on it. Trajectory and balance for most basketball players are pretty intuitive. They push with a certain amount, angle it and then it goes into the basket. Well, if we’ve got weaker gravity working on it up there, it’s gonna go way over the top of the basket unless you can compensate. That gets kind of tricky. If you were in zero gravity, you could send it straight toward the hoop. But then the ring of the hoop would not allow it to come down, and I think you’d miss every time. It’d just bounce away.

StarTalk: How about on the court?

Aldrin: You could bounce the ball on the court and it should behave fairly similar because it’s mainly a deprivation of the outside of the ball that then wants to return to the shape it was in. It gives back sort of an equal and opposite. If the ball hits the floor at a certain velocity and bounces back in an angle change, that may be different. But it would go back to the place it came from.

Photo of Dick Vitale and Buzz Aldrin examining their brackets for March Madness and March Mayhem. Credit: NCAA.

Dick Vitale and Buzz Aldrin talking brackets and the Allstate March Mayhem Challenge. Credit: NCAA.

StarTalk: How might a player have to adapt?

Aldrin: When you throw something with good velocity, it doesn’t have to go up and then come back down. It can be much more of a straight line. It may make it easier to block. You have to become a whole new breed of basketball player if you’re gonna go to a basketball court on the Moon or Mars.

StarTalk: Do you think we’d have to add height to the hoops to account for the lower gravity?

Aldrin: The question is, how far you can jump. You can only propel yourself with the certain mass that you are by a muscle action. You move your leg out, and that pushes you up and away, and that only works when your foot is still on the basketball court.

StarTalk: Wouldn’t the ball go higher because of lower gravity?

Aldrin: Don’t think you can quite go six times as high on the Moon just because the gravity is one sixth of Earth drag. Things don’t work in straight lines. They work in arcs. You throw a pass to somebody and go way over their head. It gets a little bit complicated with the angle. You could bounce it off the floor and pass to somebody. But, of course, the big thing is the arc, and it would not be the same curve because gravity is less up there. It’s gonna be a lot flatter, and you’re probably not gonna get quite as many baskets.

StarTalk: Other than basketball, what sports do you think would work best on the Moon and Mars?

Aldrin: I think we may come up with other games up there. I think a trampoline would be a lot of fun. You’d be up, down and have a lot of mobility and time to go back down where you started from.

StarTalk: Congratulations! I heard you have a new book coming out, what can you tell us about it?

Aldrin: I do, I do! No Dream Is Too High, it’s quite a book. Vignettes of my life, a little humor and guess what? It’ll be out the day after the winner of the national tournament takes place!

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