NASA and chess

I was assigned to NASA for 6 years in my old Air Force days and still work on NASA contracts providing computer security.   I’ve played chess at Cape Canaveral, Johnson Space Center, NASA Ames, and NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.  A lot of my colleagues at NASA played chess during their lunch hour or with friends after hours.   Living a few miles south of Cape Canaveral, I have seen many Shuttle launches and other rocket launches to the moon, Mars, and beyond.


The strongest NASA player that I knew was Dr. Eugene Levin, a 2300 rated master working at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.  He is an expert on orbital debris and space tether dynamics.  In 1946, he was California State Junior champion.


With the recent death of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong (1930-Aug 25, 2012), I found out that he was a chess player.  In the book, One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong’s Stellar American Journey, by Leon Wagener, the author pointed out that Neil Armstrong played chess with his six-year-old son Mark, who was fast becoming a skilled player.  The occasion was just after Armstrong’s return from the moon and after his quarantine period. 


Astronaut Michael Collins, who flew on Gemini 10 and orbited the moon in the command module while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were on the moon, was more interested in chess than airplanes when he was growing up.  Collins once said of Buzz Aldrin, he “would make a champion chess player, always thinks several moves ahead.”


Astronaut Michael P. Anderson (1959-2003) listed chess as one of his hobbies.  He was killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.  He flew on two Shuttle missions.


Astronaut Guion “Guy” Bluford, the first African-American astronaut to fly in space, flew on four Shuttle missions.  He was a chess player and captain of his high school chess team.


Astronaut Mark N. Brown flew on two Shuttle missions.  He listed chess as one of his hobbies.


In June 2008, mission specialist astronaut Dr. Gregory Chamitoff brought a Velcro chessboard ( a magnetic chess set would have interfered with some electronics on board) with him on the space shuttle. In August 2008, he played a chess match against Houston Mission Control and won two games against ground control while playing chess on the International Space Station (ISS). At one point, a rook did not stick to the Velcro board and floated away. It was later found in one of the airflow return filters in the US Laboratory on the ISS.


From September 29, 2008, to October 9, 2008, NASA and the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) hosted the first Earth vs. space match, played by the public and Chamitoff during the STS-124 space shuttle mission. Earth won the match thanks to the chess players at Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue, Washington, who suggested several moves and the public voted on the moves.


From May 16 to June 1, 2011, an Earth vs. Space Match was held between earth members and two crew members (Mission Specialist Greg Chamitoff and Pilot Greg Johnson) of STS 134 (last U.S. space launch) on the Endeavour Space Shuttle to the International Space Station. It was sponsored by NASA and the USCF (match director was Hal Bogner). The mission, and the game, lasted 16 days. The public voted on the moves made via Facebook and Twitter.  A chess board flown on the Endeavour Space Shuttle is on display at the U.S. and World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis.  It was signed by the 2010 U.S. Men’s and Women’s Chess Championship.


Astronaut Catherine”Cady” Coleman flew two Shuttle missions.  She is a chess player.


Astronaut Dirk Frimout was the first Belgian in space.  He flew on STS-45 as a payload specialist in 1992.  He listed chess as one of his hobbies.


Astronaut Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish physicist, flew on two Shuttle missions.  He is a chess player.  While in space, he played a game of chess against the Swedish public in 2009.  He is a member of the Swedish Chess Academy.  In August- September 2009 Fuglesang played chess while in space against readers of a Swedish newspaper (Dagens Nyheter). He lost the game, but when he returned to Earth, he received a Rybka program signed by five world chess champions (Kasparov, Karpov, Kramnik, Spassky, and Anand).


Astronaut James Irwin (1930-1991) was the Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 15.  One of his chess sets, which he signed, recently appeared on eBay.


Astronaut Gregory  H. Johnson flew on two Shuttle missions.  He listed chess as one of his hobbies and played chess with astronaut Greg Chamitoff while aboard the International Space Station.


Robert Henry Lawrence (1935-1967) was a test pilot and selected by the Air Force to be an astronaut in the Air Foirce’s Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program.  He was thus the first African-American person to be selected as an astronaut.  However, he was killed on December 8, 1967, when his F-104 Starfighter crashed.   He was a chess player in his earlier years.


Astronaut John M. “Mike” Lounge (1946-2011) flew on three Shuttle missions.  He was a chess player.


Astronaut Donald Pettit has spent 370 days in space in three flights to the International Space Station.  He listed one of his hobbies was chess.  He carried on a chess game with astronaut William McCool at Johnson Space Center.  McCool and the rest of his crew were killed in 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up after re-entry.  McCool also listed chess as one of his enjoyments.


Dr. Story Musgrave, a physician, flew on six Shuttle missions.   He listed chess as one of his hobbies.


Dr. Wernher von Braun was a chess player.


  • 4 years ago


    thanks, bill.

  • 4 years ago


    Nice. Most intersting thing I have read on here in a while. Respect! 

  • 4 years ago


    nice article !

  • 4 years ago


    Astronauts are among the bravest people on the planet. Peace to all those who risked or lost their lives in pursuit of mankind's progress. If chess helps many of them maintain their sharp analytical skills, then long live chess.

  • 4 years ago


    great article! 

  • 4 years ago



  • 4 years ago


    Good one !!

  • 4 years ago


    Nice Job!  Lov'n it!  Here's to Neil Armstrong and the world's chess playing astronauts!  

  • 4 years ago


    Yes, the Russians had their group of cosmonauts who played chess.  See

  • 4 years ago


    Good article, thanks for posting it!  I imagine the Ruskies sent a lot of chessplayers up into orbit, nyet?

  • 4 years ago


    High-five to Neil Armstrong.  Thanks for the article.  I've always been told space is important in chess!

  • 4 years ago


    Great article.Thx for sharing

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