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To the Moon and Back

Julia Bruchez
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Moon Tree in front of Sebastian County Courthouse, in Fort Smith, Arkansas

Have you ever gone to the moon and back? Moon trees made the journey — or rather, their seeds did.

The story of moon trees starts in 1971, when Apollo 14 launched a mission to the moon. The mission pilot was Stuart Roosa, a former U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper. When he was selected for the job, a few of his Forest Service colleagues asked him to take hundreds of tree seeds into space with him. He agreed.

Seeds were collected from five types of trees: Loblolly pine, sycamore, sweetgum, redwood, and Douglas fir. The seeds were sorted — there were 400-500 total — and another set of seeds remained on Earth as a control sample.

On Jan. 31, 1971, Roosa, along with astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell, took off on the third mission to the moon. The seeds stayed with Roosa as he orbited the moon and flew back to Earth. But during decontamination, the kit containing the seeds burst open, and the crew thought the seeds were no longer viable.

However, the Forest Service sent the seeds to two of their stations to be germinated anyway. Nearly all of the seeds began to grow, and after a few years, the Forest Service had more than 420 seedlings.

Moon tree planted at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex courtyard

In 1975 and 1976, most of the seedlings were given away to state forestry groups to be planted for the country's bicentennial celebration. Not all states received trees because the five species were from western and southern states and wouldn't have thrived in other climates.

Other saplings found prominent homes in the U.S. such as at the White House, the Kennedy Space Station (pictured above) in Florida, Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Washington Square in Philadelphia, Valley Forge in Pennsylvania, and various universities. Some trees were given away as gifts to other countries, including Brazil, Switzerland, and Japan.

The number of moon trees has increased over the years, as cuttings were taken off moon trees and replanted. These second-generation moon trees are called half-moon trees.

NASA has a list of some of the moon tree locations here.

Moon trees plaque

Roosa passed away in 1994, but a moon sycamore stands over his grave in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Credit: Treehugger.com