By Will Schneider ::
Arbor day, the national tree planting celebration, is not often associated with outer space. Trees grow on earth and scientists to date have not found any alien life in the galaxy, let alone extraterrestrial trees. But on April 30th, 1976, as part of Arbor day and in observance of America’s Bicentennial, an unusual Douglas fir was planted at the state capitol in Salem. This tree has the rare distinction of being a Moon Tree – which means, as a seed, it was brought aboard NASA’s Apollo 14’s 1971 mission to the moon.
The moon tree experiment was overseen by astronaut Stuart Roosa. Its purpose was to study the germination of seeds which had visited space compared to those which remained on the Earth. Roosa had previously worked as a smoke jumper for the National Forest Service. When he was selected to the Apollo 14 mission, Roosa was contacted by Chief of the Forest Service, Ed Cliff, who proposed the project of bringing seeds into space. Four to five hundred seeds from five different species were brought aboard by Roosa: Douglas Fir, Loblolly Pine, Redwood, Sweetgum, and Sycamore. Roosa kept the seeds with him as he orbited the moon while his two fellow astronauts visited the surface for what was then only the third time in history.
Although the seed canisters broke during the decontamination process and it was assumed that they would no longer produce trees, remarkably, almost all germinated and sprouted. The seeds were sent across the country and were often ceremoniously planted as part of the Nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. Some of the trees were planted next to their control seeds, the counterparts which were left on earth for comparison with the ones in orbit. Over the last four decades, they have grown side by side with no significant difference between them.
NASA planted moon trees on their campuses and at the International Forest of Friendship in Atchison, Kansas which commemorates the men and women in the aviation and space programs. American diplomats used moon trees as gifts to foreign leaders. The Emperor of Japan, for example, received a Moon Tree. One moon tree was planted at the White House by President Ford on January 19th, 1977, his final day in the White House.
In 2003, Oregon designated the Moon Tree as a Heritage Tree. To further honor this unique tree, in 2013 the Oregon Percent for Art in Public Places Program commissioned a statue of the Apollo 14 spaceship and a Douglas fir tree. The statue stands at the Oregon Department of Transportation in Salem, not far from the State Capitol. Alongside the statue is a plaque commemorating the mission, Roosa, and the Salem Moon Tree.
Unfortunately, no proper records were kept on the distribution of the seeds. NASA admits that the list of Moon Tree locations is incomplete and welcomes information from the public on the location of additional trees.
NASA has continued to conduct experiments on seeds in space. In 1983, a similar experiment on the Challenger shuttle found that seeds taken to space exhibited no evidence of mutation even though they were exposed to minor amounts of radiation. Furthermore the seeds germinated just as successfully as their earthly counterparts; if anything they germinated faster. Today, aboard the International Space Station, astronauts use their “space garden” to grow grow lettuce, radishes and peas. NASA believes studying seed transportation and germination could someday enable colonization in space.
At over 60 feet tall the Salem Moon Tree is an example of these trees’ potential. Its only threat comes from nearby trees. A plan is being considered which would remove some surrounding trees so the Moon Tree can continue to thrive.
Want more? Check out:
- Dr. David R. Williams, “Oregon State Capitol Moon Tree,” NASA
- Dr. David R. Williams, “The Moon Trees,” NASA
- Helen Anne Curry, “Tomato Seeds in Space: NASA outreach and science education in the shuttle era,” Endeavour
- Lori Meggs, “Growing Plants and Vegetables in a Space Garden,” NASA
- Lisa Grossman, “The Mystery of the Missing Moon Trees,” Wired Magazine
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Feasting on the Flowers”
CBS Apollo 14 News Coverage
Will Schneider, Project Manager
Alecia Giombolini, Fact Checker