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Where Have the Moon Trees Gone? 

By Michelle Delio  |   Also by this reporter Page 1 of 1

02:00 AM Sep. 12, 2002 PT

Hundreds of trees that have been to the moon are now living on Earth, and NASA scientist Dave Williams is hunting for them.

Williams is searching for the "moon trees" that were grown from seeds carried into space by an Apollo 14 crew member.

Moon trees can be found all over the world. They are usually spotted by accident because no one kept track of where most of them were planted.

So far, Williams has located 44 of the 450 or so that were planted in 1976. He's hoping his website will eventually list the whereabouts of all the missing trees.

Williams became interested in moon trees seven years ago when he received an e-mail from a third-grade teacher. Her class was doing a project on famous trees and came across one with a plaque identifying it as a moon tree. She wondered if Williams could tell her anything more about the tree's history.

He couldn't, but he checked NASA's history office, searched the Web, made a few phone calls and managed to piece together the story.

The trees were grown from seeds that astronaut Stuart Roosa took with him on Apollo 14's mission to the moon. Roosa had been a smokejumper -- a firefighter who parachutes directly into wildfires -- before becoming an astronaut.

Astronauts are allowed to bring a dozen personal items, with a maximum total weight of 1.5 pounds, on their missions. Typically they opt to carry coins, jewelry, stamps and other items suitable for souvenirs.

But a slice of fabric from the Wright brothers' original plane flew aboard Apollo 11, a piece of Captain James Cook's Endeavour ship was in the Apollo 15 lunar module, an astronomical apparatus built in Persia in the 17th century was onboard a Columbia shuttle, and Story Musgrave took a chunk of rock from Stonehenge on his 1990 flight.

When Roosa blasted off on Jan. 31, 1971, he took a six-inch metal cylinder containing seeds from redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir and sweet gum trees. According to mission records, the seeds orbited the moon 34 times.

Back on Earth, the metal tube burst during decontamination procedures. There were fears the seeds were too damaged to germinate. But virtually all survived after being shipped to Forest Service labs, eventually resulting in hundreds of moon trees.

Some went to national landmarks like the White House and Independence Square in Philadelphia. Others went to local governments; the then-mayor of New Orleans, "Moon" Landrieu, put in a special request. Some were given to foreign heads of state. But plenty of the trees ended up in out-of-the-way places.

Williams says no one tracked where the trees were being sent and the location of most of them is still unknown. Williams' website encourages people to contact him with possible moon tree sightings.

"I really like the fact that these trees can be anywhere, and I'm sure there are a lot out there in local parks, small college campuses and next to buildings that people are walking by every day without realizing it," Williams said.

Most of the moon trees that have been reported have a marker of some sort; without identification, there's no difference between them and standard-issue Earth trees.

Williams didn't even know that there was a moon tree at the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he works, until someone asked him why it wasn't listed on his website.

"That was a little embarrassing," Williams said.

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