On the last day of January 1971, Apollo 14 launched on a nine-day mission to the moon. Four and a half days later, Stuart Roosa orbited the moon in the command module while Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell explored the lunar surface. Roosa wasn’t alone though. He’d brought along 500 seeds including loblolly pine, sycamore, sweetgum, redwood and douglas fir.
Before his days as an astronaut, a 20-year-old Roosa took a summer job as a smoke jumper, fighting wildfires by parachuting into them. His love of nature and the forest stuck with him as he joined the Air Force, served as a test pilot and ultimately joined the astronaut corps.
The U.S. Forest Service genetic institutes provided the seeds. Each had a twin from the same parent tree kept safely back on Earth. When Apollo 14 returned, the seeds were sent to Forest Service labs in Mississippi and California where the “Moon Tree” experiment continued. Nearly all germinated with no differences found between the well-traveled trees and their Earthbound siblings. No differences were found in their offspring, so-called “Half Moon Trees."
In 1975, the trees were ready to leave the lab and everybody wanted one. Trees were planted around the country and beyond, often as a part of bicentennial celebrations.
Over the next few months, hundreds of trees were planted at state capitols, museums and schools. The first sycamore went to Philadelphia in May 1975. A loblolly pine was planted at the White House near the East Garden. Four of these trees made their way to North Carolina.
A sycamore was planted in honor of the nation's bicentennial near the Forest Discovery Center at the Cradle of Forestry in Asheville. Curator Cindy Carpenter concludes trail tours at the tree, which has reached 58 feet.
UNC Asheville planted their tree near a stream in the Botanical Gardens at Asheville on Arbor Day, 1976.
A half moon tree was planted along the Famous and Historic Trees Trail in Rowan County’s Sloan Park. The trail includes 76 offspring of historic trees that have witnessed American history from the Revolution, to the Civil War to the moon.
Guilford College in Greensboro, planted their half moon tree in the mid-90’s. The sapling was damaged in transit before it was planted near Hedge-Cox Hall. The tree still has a distinctive bend where that damage occurred.
North Carolina’s collection of moon trees recently grew by two. Pullen Park in Raleigh received a half moon sycamore. Raleigh Parks and Recreation Department crews are caring for the tree in preparation for a dedication next spring.
Today, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences received a sycamore at their Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Director Charles Yelton points out that the sycamore is native to North Carolina and will make a historic addition to the arboretum. Yelton plans to plant the tree in celebration of the opening of the museum's Nature Research Center.
The moon trees continue to stand as a tribute to astronaut Roosa and the Apollo program. “It reminds us that there is so much to learn about our universe, but there is also so much that science is revealing about our own earth and its forests.” Carpenter says.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.