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NASA’s ‘Moon Trees’ have roots in Oregon forest fire

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By Finn J.D. John
May 11, 2014

SOMETIME IN THE late 1990s, Scott Leavengood of Oregon State University’s Forestry Extension Service got a strange phone call from Michael Simons of Phoenix, Arizona.

“I heard there was a moon tree planted at the College of Forestry,” Simons said. “Is it still there? Can I get cuttings from it?”

Leavengood had no idea what he was talking about. Moon tree? What was that?

Trees In Space

THE MOON TREE story starts with a young Forest Service employee named Stuart Roosa. Roosa was a “smokejumper” — a wildland firefighter deployed by parachute like an airborne Ranger. Throughout a tough 1953 fire season, he parachuted behind the fire lines in Oregon’s back country, helping put forest fires out.

Peavy Hall, on the Oregon State University campus, with its “Moon Tree” towering over it. (Image: F.J.D. John)

Eighteen years later, Roosa was in a different career. He had become a U.S. Air Force officer, test pilot and astronaut. And he’d been picked for the crew of Apollo 14, the third mission to the moon, scheduled for launch in 1971.

But although he was living every little boy’s dream, he remembered fondly his summer in the backcountry of the Beaver State, and his colleagues in the U.S. Forest Service. And now, he thought, was his opportunity to do them a well-deserved favor.

“Each Apollo astronaut was allowed to take a small number of personal items to the moon,” said Lt. Col. Jack Roosa, Stuart Roosa’s son, in an interview with NASA Science News. “My father chose trees. It was his way of paying tribute to the U.S. Forest Service.”

Trees, that is, in the form of seeds. Roosa planned to fill a container with more than 400 seeds from five different kinds of trees: Redwoods, Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Douglas Fir and Sweetgum. He’d take them to the moon, return them to Earth, and see if they would still grow, and how well.

Designing an experiment

THE PLAN WAS a little like a publicity stunt — but it was also a scientific experiment. The Forest Service scientists — who, of course, loved Roosa’s idea and were eager to help in any way — wanted to see what would happen to seeds that had been subjected to the vacuum and zero gravity of outer space. Would they sprout? Would they grow normally?

There was only one way to find out, and that involved sending them on a journey of roughly 1 million miles — to the moon and back again.

The scientists provided Roosa with clean tree seeds from Forest Service genetics institutions. Each seed’s parents were known, so that if one grew markedly different from its ancestors, it would be noticed. The seeds were packed in a metal cylinder 6 inches long and 3 inches in diameter, and on Jan. 31, 1971, they blasted into space.

Over the moon

ROOSA WAS THE command-module pilot, so he didn’t actually get to walk on the moon; he orbited above while fellow astronauts Al Shepard and Ed Mitchell explored the surface, collecting rocks and whacking the golf balls Shepard had brought with him.

Upon their return, there was a little mishap — the cylinder, exposed to vacuum, exploded and scattered the seeds all over the place. Forest Service staff director Stan Krugman spent hours scrounging the seeds up and sorting them by species, whereupon they were sent off to Forest Service labs to see if they would germinate.

Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, they did.

Bicentennial moon-tree mania

BY 1975, THE year before the Bicentennial celebration, the Forest Service had hundreds of little seedling “moon trees.” And suddenly everyone wanted one.

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Astronaut Stuart Roosa, the former Forest Service smokejumper whose experience fighting an Oregon forest fire inspired him to propose the Moon Tree program. (Image: NASA)

It seemed like every Congressman wanted one to plant in his or her home state. One went to the Emperor of Japan. The mayor of New Orleans, a man named Moon Landrieu, requested a Moon Tree or two for obvious reasons as well. They were so popular that Forest Service professionals had to root cuttings of the original trees — not an easy thing to do with a conifer — to meet the demand.

There followed a busy year of planting and celebrating Bicentennial Moon Trees ...

... followed immediately, for most of them, by three decades of forgetting they even existed.

Moon Trees of Oregon

IN OREGON, THE trees were not forgotten. A plaque marked the location of the Moon Tree on the State Capitol grounds in Salem, and another one on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene was remembered in 1987, when it was carefully moved to make way for the construction of Willamette Hall. Today it stands at the corner of the lawn behind the Erb Memorial Union, close to the Carson dormitory building.

The plaque placed at the foot of Oregon State University’s “Moon Tree,” denoting its special status. (Image: F.J.D. John)

According to NASA, there are four other Moon Trees in Oregon, for a total of six: One at the Veterans’ Hospital in Roseburg, two at a private residence in Salem and the one at Oregon State University, in front of Peavy Hall.

(The ones at a private residence in Salem, by the way, are an interesting enigma. Their date of planting is given as 1973, two full years before any other moon trees were planted anywhere in the country; and other than the reference on the NASA Website, I haven’t been able to find any more information about them. If you happen to know where they are and how they came to be planted, I would love to hear from you.)

OSU’s Moon Tree

AT OREGON STATE, the resident moon tree wasn’t forgotten, but it also wasn’t widely known about, which is why Leavengood — an Extension agent specializing in forestry — had never heard of it until Michael Simon’s phone call.

And it was the tree at OSU that Simon wanted a cutting from — despite the fact that several other Moon Trees were much closer to his home. He explained to Leavengood that he was trying to get his daughter interested in science, and thought trying to sprout a Moon Tree would be a great father-daughter project.

Leavengood made a few inquiries, and soon learned that the big 40-foot fir tree in front of Peavy Hall — which he’d walked by hundreds of times on campus — was, in fact, a Moon Tree.

Leavengood took cuttings from its branches and pine cones from its base, and sent them off to Simon — who tried valiantly to get the cuttings to root, but failed (this is extremely difficult to do with a Douglas Fir). But he also planted the pine cones, after conditioning them in the freezer following instructions from Leavengood. So presumably, somewhere in Phoenix there is a descendant of OSU’s Moon Tree — what you might call a “half-moon tree” — growing in a suburban back yard, and it got there via Oregon — and the moon.

(Sources: Jabin, Darrell. “A Moon Tree in Oregon” (video),; “A Moon Tree?”, Focus On Forestry, Winter 2000; Williams, David R. “The Moon Trees,” NASA Website; “In Search of Moon Trees,” NASA Science News, August 2002)

TAGS: #StuartRoosa #Astronaut #ScottLeavengood #Smokejumpers #USAF #TestPilots #ApolloSpaceProgram #TreeSeedsOnTheMoon #AlShepard #EdMitchell #GolfBalls #Bicentennial #MoonLandrieu #WillametteHall #UO #OSU #PeavyHall #DarrellJabin #DavidWilliams

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