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NASA's David Williams is trying to locate the "Moon Trees" grown from seeds that flew on Apollo 14 in 1971. (Photo by Carl Bower)
Fly Me to the Moon, Then Let Me Grow Among the Firs

By DRU SEFTON

c.2002 Newhouse News Service

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Back when they were just tiny seeds, hundreds of trees journeyed to the moon, around it 34 times, and back to Earth. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is sure of that.

The agency just doesn't know where all the grown trees are now.

So NASA's David Williams has stepped up to find the "Moon Trees," many of which are hiding in plain sight, in schoolyards and city parks, at police stations and on college campuses.

"Something over 400 actually germinated after they returned to Earth," Williams said from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "There are hundreds still out there, spread out all over the world."

Their journey began Jan. 31, 1971, when Apollo 14 launched with three astronauts aboard. One was Stuart Roosa, a former "smokejumper" firefighter.

Each astronaut was allowed one PPK, or Personal Preference Kit, in which he could carry small items on the mission. (On Gemini 3, John Young carried a corned beef sandwich.) Roosa carried tree seeds -- redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir and sweet gum -- as a tribute to the U.S. Forest Service, his past employer.

Forest Service researchers wondered if the seeds would germinate properly after their flight through weightlessness. They did.

"That's not surprising," said David Karnosky, a professor of forest genetics and biotechnology at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. "I can't imagine the trip would have any adverse affect on seeds. Young seedlings, that would be harder to say."

During the next several years, the seeds sprouted and thrived in Forest Service laboratories. Suddenly there were hundreds of little trees -- with nowhere to grow.

So the service began giving them away.

"They were planted for the Bicentennial in almost every state," Williams said.

One went to the White House, another to the emperor of Japan. One was planted in Independence Square in Philadelphia. One made its way to Valley Forge.

Out the trees went, to schools, museums, veterans hospitals, historical societies.

But nobody kept track of where the seedlings were planted. The trees were all but forgotten. Roosa died in 1994.

Then in 1996, third-grade teacher Joan Goble and her class ran across a sycamore with a small sign identifying it as a "Moon Tree" at a Girl Scout camp in Cannelton, Ind.

"We wanted to know all about it, but we didn't know where to start," Goble said.

Goble searched the Internet and ran across Williams, who oversees NASA's Planetary/Lunar Sciences archives at the National Space Science Data Center. Any information or images from planetary flights, Williams has filed away.

"But I'd never heard of Moon Trees before," he admitted.

Williams contacted the history office at NASA, which sent back a couple old photocopied articles on the trees -- enough information to pique Williams' interest. He started a Web site (http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar; click on "The Moon Trees") and has so far identified 45 of the trees.

One is even on the grounds of the NASA facility where Williams works. "I've been thinking I should go water it because of the drought," he said.

Robert Jankowski of Steubenville, Ohio, is one of several Moon Tree fans who have contacted Williams. Jankowski became interested after he visited the Moon Tree in Jefferson County's Friendship Park, outside Steubenville near Smithville.

"I actually remember back when it was first planted," Jankowski said. "I remember taking the kids down to see it."

Jankowski sent Williams a clipping from a local newspaper that reported on the Moon Tree planting ceremony on July 29, 1976, at Friendship Park. The Smithville American Legion Post color guard was there; a message was read from retired astronaut and then-Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio. The Bloomingdale Bicentennial Committee served lemonade "from an old-fashioned dipper." Bible verses were recited and music was played.

Now, the sycamore is just another tree in the park except for "a ring of large cobblestones around it, so you can tell it's something different," Jankowski said. He has made several calls to civic organizations trying to rally support for a sign to be posted but received no responses.

Teacher Goble and her students also have "adopted" the Moon Tree in the Cannelton Girl Scout camp. They placed a sign that explains what the tree is, and visit it from time to time, studying its fruit and leaves and measuring its girth. Goble has tentative plans for a rededication ceremony this coming spring to replace the weathered sign.

"All of the students love the idea that the Moon Tree was grown from a seed that was literally out in space," Goble said.

Gary Brienzo of the National Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska City, Neb., said that enthusiasm is important.

Moon Trees "are a neat concept that showed real insight and vision" on the part of astronaut Roosa to draw attention to trees, Brienzo said. "It raises awareness of trees, gets people not to take trees for granted."

And offspring of the Moon Trees live on. American Forests, a nonprofit organization, offers second-generation Moon Tree seedlings through its Historic Tree Nursery.

The saplings are propagated from a Moon Tree at Mississippi State University in Starkville. Each tree, up to 3 feet high, comes with a lifetime replacement guarantee and planting kit for $39.50 at www.historictrees.org.

"The Moon sycamore is one of our most popular trees in the 15 years we've been offering it," said Susan Corbett, spokeswoman for the Historic Tree Nursery in Jacksonville, Fla., which sells seedlings from 60 special trees, including the honey locust under which Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address and an Elvis Presley Weeping Willow culled from a tree at Graceland.

Williams plans to keep searching for the Moon Trees. "I probably won't find most, but I hope to find a lot," he said.

To talk Moon Trees with him, e-mail Williams at dwilliam@nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov.

(Dru Sefton can be contacted at dru.sefton@newhouse.com)