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apollo trip seeds

All in all, it’s unlikely the seeds were changed much by their brief stint in space, but it’s amazing they made it to space at all, and even better that many of the trees are still growing and flourishing today.

‘Moon Trees’ Might Just Be One of The Most Epic Apollo Legacies We’ve Heard Of

On 31 January 1971, the Apollo 14 mission launched from Earth and spent nine days in space. Along with the necessary space gear, scientific equipment, and two golf balls, the Kitty Hawk command module was also housing 500 seeds.

You might be surprised to know that those seeds live on today, despite enduring space radiation, and a decontamination mishap.

In the 1970s people were taking all sorts of things to the Moon, and the Chief of the US Forest Service at the time contacted soon-to-be astronaut Stuart Roosa to propose sending something small but mighty into space: tree seeds.

Long before Roosa became an astronaut, he started his military career as a ‘smokejumper’ – a specially trained firefighter who parachutes into remote terrain and fights wildland fires. Roosa wanted to pay tribute to the Forest Service, and so agreed to the request.

In Roosa’s personal travel kit when the rocket took off, he’d packed around 500 seeds from redwood, loblolly pine ( Pinus taeda), American sycamore ( Platanus occidentalis) , Douglas fir ( Pseudotsuga menziesii), and American sweet gum ( Liquidambar styraciflua) trees.

As Roosa was the Command Module Pilot, he never actually made it down to the lunar surface, and neither did the seeds, but they did do 34 orbits of the Moon before heading home.

Once the three astronauts returned to Earth, the seeds (inside their canister) underwent the normal decontamination procedure, but the canister ruptured and the seeds were mixed together. At the time, it was thought they might be too damaged to germinate.

Luckily, researchers tried anyway, and found that most of the seeds did survive, and were planted at a number of locations across the US. There might even be one near you.

You can see a list of the ‘Moon tree’ locations here (they’re also mapped here), and it looks like they grew completely normally, with no observable differences when compared to their Earth-bound counterparts.

But that raises an interesting question: were the seeds actually any different after their journey into space?

We now know that cosmic radiation – the high-energy particles that we’re normally shielded against by our planet’s atmosphere – is a real issue out in space.

The astronauts on the Apollo missions were exposed to a number of different types of radiation, and that goes for the seeds as well.

But seeds are well-known to be extremely hardy – in fact, some seeds can undergo 200 times the radiation dose required to kill a human and still germinate.

There’s also the issue of a lack of gravity, and how that might have affected the seeds in space, but most research done on plants in microgravity are done on the plants themselves, not the seeds.

All in all, it’s unlikely the seeds were changed much by their brief stint in space, but it’s amazing they made it to space at all, and even better that many of the trees are still growing and flourishing today.

In fact, in a fitting tribute to Roosa – after his death in 1994 – a Moon sycamore was planted near his grave.

Apollo trip seeds
Roosa, a former Air Force fighter pilot, was the command module pilot for Apollo 14, meaning he circled the moon but didn’t walk on it.

Where to find California’s moon trees, grown from seeds taken aboard an Apollo mission

You can thank Stuart Roosa for what have become known as America’s moon trees. The Apollo 14 astronaut and former U.S. Forest Service smokejumper blasted off for the moon in 1971 with hundreds of seeds from different species of trees among his possessions. Those seeds were brought back, germinated on Earth, and the saplings were given away to communities across the U.S. during the 1976 bicentennial.

Moon trees planted in California, coast redwoods all, still stand. One of the Sequoia sempervirens can be found in downtown Monterey. “There’s a plaque by the tree that tells the story,” said Rachel Dinbokowitz of the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It was planted in July 1976 right near Colton Hall.”

There’s also a moon tree at the north entrance to the state capitol in Sacramento, two at Tilden Nature Area in Berkeley, one at Mission Plaza in San Luis Obsipo, three at Humboldt State University in Arcata, and at least one at a Forest Service site in Lockeford.

Aside from coast redwoods, Roosa brought seeds for loblolly pines from the South, Douglas fir from the Northwest, and sycamores, which grow all over the country but especially in the Northeast and the Midwest. Exactly how many moon trees still stand is anyone’s guess because records weren’t kept of where the saplings were distributed.

That’s where NASA archivist David R. Williams comes in. He took an interest in finding the moon trees in 1996 after receiving an inquiry about a moon tree from a teacher in Indiana. Since then, Williams brought the whereabouts of Roosa’s trees — as many as he could find and authenticate — to the internet. He also asked communities with moon trees to contact him to add to the archive.

“It is the only thing like this that I know of,” he said of Roosa’s actions. “It was kind of brilliant.” Brilliant in that Roosa left a lunar legacy with something as earthly as a tree for generations to enjoy, a reminder of the enthusiasm of America’s space program.

Roosa, a former Air Force fighter pilot, was the command module pilot for Apollo 14, meaning he circled the moon but didn’t walk on it.

The seeds in space were “part scientific experiment, part public relations venture,” purportedly testing how microgravity could affect plants, according to National Geographic.

Williams’ list of moon trees identifies about 80 current or former sites, including a sycamore moon tree at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The loblolly pine planted at the White House has since died, according to Williams’ records.

Roosa died in 1994 at age 61. His children have continued to support his moon tree legacy, planting a second-generation sycamore moon tree dedicated to the astronaut in 2005 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. “The whole Roosa family was there,” Williams said.