NASA Moon Trees Still Stand as Testament to Apollo 14

By: Sharise Cunningham  | 

coast redwood moon tree
This coast redwood Moon Tree in Monterey, California, was presented to the city in July 1976 to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States. It was a 2-foot-tall (0.60-meter) seedling grown by the Institute of Forest Genetics in Placerville, California, from one of Roosa's original seeds. NASA

It's entirely possible a UFO has been somewhere near your home for decades. Yes, we mean a UFO from outer space, just not the flying saucer kind. The UFO we're talking about might be an "unidentified fir object." That's because a fir is one of several varieties of tree seeds that literally took a trip around the moon in the '70s and made its way back to be planted on Earth. Let's discover just how that happened.

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Fly Seeds to the Moon

The moon is often the stuff of inspiration and love. And trees are seen as imparting strength and wisdom. But what do you get when you combine the two? Philosophically who knows, but physically you get quite simply, Moon Trees!

In 1971, Stuart Roosa, a former U.S. Forest Service smokejumper, joined NASA astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell on the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. Roosa took with him five different varieties of tree seeds onboard Apollo 14, including nearly 500 seeds of Douglas fir, loblolly pine, sycamore, sweetgum and redwood. He held the seeds in metal containers inside a canvas pouch as part of a joint NASA/U.S. Forestry Service project.

Roosa and the seeds orbited the moon in the Kitty Hawk command module as Shepard and Mitchell walked on the moon's surface below.

While the seeds never left the capsule or touched the moon, they became known as Moon Trees when they returned to Earth and were germinated and planted around the United States.

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Touch and Go

The point of the seed project was to determine whether there might be a difference in characteristics between the astronomical seeds and a batch of control seeds left on Earth.

Almost immediately upon return, the experiment was in jeopardy because the seed bag was exposed to vacuum and burst during the decontamination process. The seeds were mixed up, and nobody knew if they would still be viable. But Forest Service geneticist Stan Krugman, who was in charge of the project, separated them by hand and sent them to Forest Service labs to be germinated.

After a failed attempt at growing several trees in Houston, the remaining seeds were sent to the southern Forest Service station in Gulfport, Mississippi, and to the western station in Placerville, California. Many of the seeds germinated successfully and grew into seedlings.

Some of the seedlings were planted along with the control seeds left on Earth. Now, nearly 50 years after the Apollo 14 mission, there's no discernable difference between the known plantings.

Unfortunately, most seedlings were given away in 1975 and 1976 to state forestry organizations to be planted as part of the nation's bicentennial celebration. Others were sent to the White House, Independence Square in Philadelphia and even the Emperor of Japan. But they weren't cataloged and tracked so the "known list" is a best guess. You can find many of them across the U.S. and most are noted with a plaque.

moon tree map
This map from NASA shows approximately where in the U.S. you can find living Moon Trees that were planted and still survive.
NASA

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