50 years ago this week, the Apollo 14 crew flew their mission to the Moon. Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell were the third pair of astronauts to walk on the lunar surface. They conducted two moonwalks in the Fra Mauro highlands, collecting rocks and setting up science experiments, as well as broadcasting the first color TV images from the Moon.
Meanwhile, Stuart Roosa remained in orbit as the Command Module pilot. But Roosa wasn’t alone while circling above the Moon.
In his personal preference kit, Roosa brought along five varieties of tree seeds, about 400 seeds in total. After the mission, those seeds were germinated and grown, with between 200-300 seedlings and saplings planted across the country and around the world, between 1975 and the early 1980s. But exactly where all those “Moon Trees” were planted has been lost. NASA has been trying to locate and document any of those trees, and find out whether any are still living.
“It’s possible you might live near a Moon tree and you don’t know about it,” said NASA scientist Dave Williams, who works at Goddard Spaceflight Center.
Williams has documented the locations of about 80 of these trees. If anyone knows of a Moon Tree or remembers attending a planting ceremony for a Moon Tree not already on his list, Williams would love to hear from you.
The story of the Moon Trees started before Stuart Roosa became an astronaut. He had served as a smoke jumper for the US Forest Service, parachuting into areas to help fight wildfires. After Roosa was chosen to be part of Apollo 14, the Forest Service approached him and asked if he’d consider being part of a small experiment: would he bring tree seeds along to the Moon, and after the flight, the Forest Service would oversee the project to see if the seeds would germinate after being in weightlessness.
“The seeds were kept in a container about the size of a soda can, and it was sealed so they were never in the vacuum of space,” Williams said. “They also had seeds that remained back on Earth, so they did plan a type of controlled experiment, but no one really expected there to be any difference in the seeds.”
However, everything brought back from the Moon had to be decontaminated in a vacuum chamber, and during the decontamination process, the seed cannister burst open, with the seeds scattering about – and so the seeds actually were exposed to vacuum – which was not part of the original experiment!
“The seeds were germinated and grown in greenhouses,” Williams said, “and in some sense they did do a science experiment, but it was mainly a public relations kind of thing.”
The seedlings and saplings were given to congressional members and foreign ambassadors. They were planted at town halls, parks and libraries, as well as at NASA centers, universities and state capitals across the US.
There were five different types of tree seeds: Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Sweetgum, Redwood, and Douglas Fir. A Loblolly Pine, which has since died, was planted at the White House. Trees were planted in Brazil, Switzerland, and presented to the Emperor of Japan, among others.
Roosa traveled around the country during the bicentennial year to take part in ceremonies to plant the trees from the seeds he carried to the Moon. The first Moon Tree ever planted was a Sycamore at Washington Square in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1975 in preparation for the US Bicentennial in 1976. The original tree planted there died, but a clone was planted in 2011; the clone was not thriving and was removed in 2019. The original plaque still remains, with plans to plant another clone tree.
There were plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 14 flight at Goddard Space Flight Center, where another Moon Tree is planted, but the plans fell through due to the pandemic.
From personal experience, seeing and touching a Moon Tree is a wonderful experience, which beautifully provides a connection to both the Apollo program and also the effect it had on our appreciation of our own planet Earth. I’ve had the chance to visit three Moon Trees: one at Kennedy Space Center (KSC now has a “Moon Tree Garden” of second generation Moon Trees, as the original tree was lost during Hurricane Irma in 2017), the clone in Philadelphia a few years ago, and an original Sycamore Moon Tree that stands on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, just outside of the Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium. The tree was shown to me by Geoff Notkin, author, adventurer and co-star of the Discovery Channel’s Meteorite Men series. Notkin is also the president of the National Space Society and is CEO of Aerolite Meteorites Inc, a company that provides meteorite specimens to researchers, museums, and collectors worldwide.
“I’ve long been fascinated by the Moon Tree story, and after I moved to Tucson, I was almost speechless to discover there was a Moon Tree in my adopted home town!” Notkin said. He agreed that seeing a Moon Tree is an experience in itself.
“It was almost a metaphysical experience to put my hand on the trunk of the tree, which was grown from a seed that was flown to the Moon,” he said. “I have held any number of space rocks in my hands – both NASA samples and lunar meteorites — and I have to say, none of them were as thrilling as touching the Moon Tree! Something in me connected deeply with Stuart Roosa’s story and the idea to take these seeds with him to the Moon.”
Notkin is working on a book about the Moon Trees and Stuart Roosa’s story (Roosa, sadly, passed away in 1994), in attempt to tell the entire tale and possibly locate more of the trees. But the hunt for more Moon Trees might be as challenging as hunting for meteorites. Without good records of where all the trees were planted, the whereabouts of the trees today are mostly unknown.
“As space exploration enthusiasts, we’re usually very caught up in the technical aspects of spaceflight,” Notkin told me. “But to me, it is so mesmerizing that there is a tangible natural history result from this experiment. These trees are out there – all around the world – and in their own quiet way, they are celebrating the might of the Apollo program.”
If you know of any additional Moon Trees that aren’t already listed here, or if you recall attending a tree planting ceremony for a Moon Tree, see this NASA website on how to get your tree documented. If you’ve got a Moon Tree story, we’d love to hear it! Share your story in the comments below or on Universe Today’s social media sites.
Lead image caption: The plaque at Washington Square in Philadelphia commemorating the planting of the first Moon Tree.