Recreation & Heritage Resources
June 18th, 2018
In January 1971, Astronaut and former Forest Service smokejumper Stuart Roosa travelled to the moon aboard Apollo 14, carrying in his flight suit 400-500 tree seeds as part of a Forest Service experiment he helped conceive. After his safe return to Earth, the Forest Service germinated the seeds and successfully planted “moon trees” throughout the 50 states along with one on the White House grounds.
When U.S. astronaut and former USFS smokejumper Stuart Roosa returned to earth from the Apollo 14 mission February 9, 1971, he carried with him over 400 tree seeds which the Forest Service germinated and later planted across the country as “moon trees” in ceremonies celebrating the nation’s bicentennial.
Apollo 14 was the third space mission where humans walked on the lunar surface. After lifting off from Earth January 31, 1971, two astronauts, Commander Alan Shepard and pilot Edgar Mitchell, landed on the moon while the command module pilot Stuart Roosa continued in lunar orbit. Roosa orbited the moon solo for nearly 36 hours while Shepard and Mitchell explored the moon’s surface. Tucked into Roosa’s personal kit were 400-500 seeds, part of an experiment Roosa and several Forest Service employees helped conceive.
Born in 1933, Roosa hailed from Durango, Colorado. During the 1950s he worked several seasons as a Forest Service smokejumper before joining the Air Force. After graduating from pilot school, Roosa worked as an experimental aircraft pilot in the early 1960s until the Air Force selected him as one of 19 men in the 1966 astronaut class. He served as a support crew member for the Apollo 9 mission and after Apollo 14 he served as backup command pilot for Apollo 16 and 17. The Air Force later assigned Roosa to the Space Shuttle program until his retirement in 1976. Roosa is one of only six astronauts to pilot a space ship solo around the moon.
As Roosa prepared for his mission to the moon, Forest Service Chief Edward Cliff contacted him about bringing seeds into space. Roosa enthusiastically agreed and Cliff assigned Forest Service geneticist Stan Krugman to head the project and choose the species to make the voyage. Krugman chose five “important” American species: Douglas fir, loblolly pine, redwood, sycamore, and sweetgum.
When Roosa returned to earth and entered the decontamination process, the seeds’ original container burst and officials feared the seeds were dead. Krugman took the seeds to Forest Service research stations in Gulfport, Mississippi and Placerville, California where to his surprise nearly all germinated. By 1975 the agency had almost 450 seedlings which it gave away to state forestry organizations and planted as part of the 1976 bicentennial. Among the seedlings, the agency planted a loblolly pine at the White House, a sycamore at Valley Forge, and another sycamore at the Cradle of Forestry on the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. In a telegram sent to a number of dedication ceremonies, President Gerald Ford called the trees living symbols of “our spectacular human and scientific achievements.”
Much of the history of the moon trees was lost until recently when NASA scientist Dave Williams began tracking the trees down following an inquiry by an Indiana schoolteacher who wanted to know more about her local moon tree. Williams created a web site where he lists known trees. He has even tracked down a few second-generation trees sold by the Historic Tree Nursery in Jacksonville, Mississippi. The nursery’s seeds come from the moon sycamore at Mississippi State University.
For Williams, “the whole idea of bringing tree seeds up into space and then planting them back here on Earth allows us to have a palpable connection of sorts with space and the Apollo program.” The moon trees also offer a connection to an exceptional former Forest Service employee, Stuart Roosa. Roosa retired from NASA and the Air Force in 1976 and worked in international business before passing away in 1994.
The moon trees remind us of just one of the amazing individuals who worked for the agency and the innovative work they performed across the country and even in space!