For the 50+ Traveler

Apollo 14, which returned to Earth 50 years ago this week, is remembered for numerous highlights.

Commander Alan Shepard famously hit golf balls on the Moon, and the astronauts also collected 95 pounds of lunar rocks and soil samples for analysis.

There’s another detail you may not know about, however. Inside the Command Module Kitty Hawk, Pilot Stuart Roosa carried hundreds of tree seeds as part of an experiment to see what effect space travel would have on them.

Now you’re probably wondering, “What happened to the seeds?” The answer is that Roosa returned to Earth with the seeds, which germinated and grew into “Moon Trees.”

A Joint Project

Before becoming a military aviator and then an astronaut, Roosa had been a smokejumper working for the U.S. Forest Service. Smokejumpers are forest firefighters who parachute from planes to fight wildland forest fires. Ed Cliff, chief of the Forest Service, knew Roosa from his time as a smokejumper, NASA said.

It was Cliff’s idea to send the tree seeds into space as part of a joint project between NASA and the U.S. Forest Service with two goals in mind. The first, NASA said, was to see what effect space travel would have on the seeds. The second goal was to raise awareness about the Forest Service in general, and more specifically, the job smokejumpers do.

NASA explained that 500 seeds from Loblolly Pine, Sweet Gum, Redwood, Douglas fir, and Sycamore tree seeds were chosen for the mission. Control seeds were also kept on Earth to be compared later with the seeds that went to the Moon.

Disaster Averted

The seed mission did not quite go smoothly.

Following the mission, “the canister ruptured during decontamination processes, and the seeds were mixed together,” NASA explains. “The experiment’s environment was compromised, and the seeds were feared to be dead.”

The seeds were still sent to Forest Service offices in Gulfport, Mississippi, and Placerville, California, to determine if they were indeed dead or if they could be germinated. Somewhat surprisingly, most of the seeds germinated, and approximately 420 saplings were grown.

A Moon Tree at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight in Huntsville, Alabama

The Growth Of Moon Trees

Some Moon Tree saplings were planted near saplings germinated from the control seeds to see if the trees showed any differences. NASA reports that the trees were examined after 20 years -- and there were no noticeable differences.

Most of the Moon Tree saplings were given to various state forestry organizations in 1975 and 1976 to be planted as part of the country’s bicentennial celebration. Other saplings were given to schools, universities, parks, and government offices. NASA explains that locations were primarily chosen to match the needed climate conditions for the tree species.

For example, a Loblolly Pine was planted at the White House, and Sycamore trees were planted at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and at the Koch Girl Scout Camp in Cannelton, Indiana, NASA explains. Other trees were planted in Washington Square in Philadelphia and at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Interestingly, there also are what’s known as Half-Moon Trees. In time, the Moon Trees reproduced with neighboring Earth trees, and their offspring are called Half-Moon Trees. NASA notes that the Half-Moon Trees all also appear normal.

One of the Half-Moon Trees can be found at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The Saturn V rocket -- used to launch the Apollo 14 mission -- was developed in the Flight Center, so it’s only fitting that a Half-Moon Tree is there.

Where You Can Find Moon Trees

Unfortunately, a list was never kept of where Moon Trees were planted, so there is no definitive listing or guide.

However, you can find a list of what are believed to be Moon Tree locations here.

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