The Moon Trees
On January 31, 1971, Apollo 14 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, launching astronauts Edgar Mitchell, Alan Shepard, and Stuart Roosa to the moon. Roosa, an Air Force test pilot, had also served as a “smokejumper” for the U.S. Forest Service, parachuting out of planes to help put out forest fires. He and a colleague named Stan Krugman wanted to find out whether tree seeds would still grow after a trip to space.
With the approval of NASA, Krugman chose five varieties: sycamores, sweetgums, Douglas firs, redwoods, and loblolly pines. He chose most of them because they grow well all over the country, and chose redwoods because they are so well-known. He kept an identical group on Earth as a control. “The scientists wanted to find out what would happen to these seeds if they took a ride to the Moon,” said Krugman. “Would the trees look normal?”
Apollo 14 is famous for a different experiment: moon golf. While Roosa (and his 500 seeds) orbited in the Kitty Hawk command module 118 miles above the surface, Alan Shepard used a modified lunar collection device to send a few chip shots into the Fra Mauro crater. On the mission’s return to Earth, the seeds were accidentally exposed to a vacuum during decontamination procedures. They were “traumatized,” said Krugman, but after careful attention, they all started growing.
NASA gave away most of the Moon Trees—which is what they’re called—as part of America’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1976. One was planted in Philadelphia’s Independence Square by Roosa and the Forest Services mascot, Woodsy Owl. Each state got one to plant at their capitol building; others went to Valley Forge, the Kennedy Space Center, and the White House. A few ended up in New Orleans at the request of then-Mayor Maurice “Moon” Landrieu. The locations of the rest were forgotten until NASA scientist Dave Williams started looking for them. So far he’s located 83 of the Moon Trees, which he catalogues on a NASA website. One was right under his nose—a 35-foot Moon Sycamore growing right outside his building at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
THE TREES TODAY
Moon Trees look and grow like normal trees. Genetic testing shows that they were unaffected by weightlessness or solar radiation, and even exposure to a vacuum doesn’t seem to have hurt them. Like any other tree, Moon Trees are susceptible to the weather…and to humans. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina damaged one of Mayor Moon’s trees so badly that it was later taken down. In 2008 the sycamore at the Cannelton Girl Scout Camp in Indiana lost its top half in a storm. One at the Wyoming, Michigan, Police Station was accidentally cut down during a building renovation.
WHERE THEY WENT
In case you’re nowhere near Washington, D.C., or a state capital, here’s where you can find some of the other trees from space:
- International Forest of Friendship, Atchison, Kansas
- Veteran’s Hospital, Tuskegee, Alabama
- Helen Keller’s birthplace, Tuscumbia, Alabama
- Tilden Nature Area, Berkeley, California
- Palustris Experimental Forest, Elmer, Louisiana
- Holliston Police Station, Holliston, Massachusetts
- Forestry Commission Nursery, Waynesboro, Michigan
- Friendship Park, Jefferson County, Ohio
- Siskiyou Smoke Jumpers Base, Illinois Valley, Oregon
- There are two in Brazil—a sweetgum at the Institute for Environment and Natural Renewable Resources in Brasilia, and a redwood growing in the southern city of Santa Rosa.
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