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Monday, November 11, 2002

Moon tree legacy spreads across country

News-Journal wire services

CAPE CANAVERAL -- A chain of life links the moon with Earth, thanks to tiny cargo an astronaut took to space more than 30 years ago.

The "moon trees," grown from seeds that orbited the moon in Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa's personal gear, now have offspring growing throughout the country.

The story of the moon trees has gained more attention since NASA scientist Dave Williams, inspired by an Indiana schoolteacher who wanted to know more about her local moon tree, began tracking them.

"I started doing this six years ago," said Williams, who's in charge of planetary and lunar data at Goddard Space Flight Center's National Science Data Center in Maryland.

What started as a couple of hours of work a month has become almost more than he can keep up with.

"I get dozens of e-mails every day now," he said. "People have moon trees all over the place."

He has a Web site where he lists known trees, many of which were planted as part of 1976 bicentennial celebrations, including one at Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Complex. He's tracked only a few second-generation trees, some of which are sold by the Historic Tree Nursery in Jacksonville.

The nursery's seeds come from the moon sycamore at Mississippi State University, spokeswoman Susan Corbett said. The nursery, run by nonprofit organization American Forests, plans to grow more moon tree saplings from a loblolly pine in Perry, in northwest Florida.

But where did this chain begin? It started with Roosa, who had been a smoke jumper -- a firefighter who jumps out of airplanes -- for the National Forest Service. He and the Forest Service decided to send tree seeds into space.

Stan Krugman, a staff geneticist for the Forest Service at the time of the 1971 mission, chose the species that got to go. They were all what he calls "important" American natives: Douglas fir, loblolly pine, redwood, slash pine, sweet gum and sycamore.

Roosa, in the Apollo 14 command module, orbited the moon while Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell explored the surface. When they returned to Earth with the seed package, a disaster nearly cost them the project.

"It was taken out of its original container and, under decontamination, the bags that the seeds were in, they exploded, and the seeds got all mixed up," said Krugman, now a consultant in McLean, Va.

NASA officials in Houston thought for sure the seeds were dead.

"I said: 'Please don't destroy them. Send them to me,'" Krugman said.

At various Forest Service labs with climates suited to the trees, he and his colleagues got the best possible news: The seeds were alive, and they would grow.

Plantings became so popular for significant events -- including a New Orleans effort headed by its then-mayor, Moon Landrieu -- that the Forest Service also grew cuttings from the trees and distributed those.

If he could do it over again, Krugman said, he would send seeds that weren't dormant to see what effect space's microgravity and radiation might have. Still, he says he's "amazed" at the impact the trees have had. Roosa never got to see the new surge of interest. He died in 1994.

Making the moon trees a part of American Forests' stable of historic trees has given them another chance at life.

The historic tree nursery's more unusual specimens include apple trees descended from Johnny Appleseed's last planting and tulip poplars from the venerable trees at Mount Vernon, where George Washington himself oversaw their plantings. To produce seeds, the latter had to be hand-pollinated because they are now too tall for bees to reach.

One second-generation moon tree is among a collection of 112 historic trees at Sanford's Touhy Park.

"It is growing and very healthy, and it really is a nice addition to our park," said Howard Jeffries, manager of parks and ground maintenance for the city.

Jeffries is involved in statewide tree preservation efforts, but he has his own little backyard project. On a visit to Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Complex, he picked up a seed from its moon sycamore. Now it's growing at his house: another next-generation moon tree.

"I think it's neat they're considering these to be historic trees," Williams said of the Historic Tree Nursery's moon-tree efforts. He has a sample of moon sycamore seeds from the nursery that he plans to grow.

He has heard of about 70 original moon trees so far, he said. Some of his moon-tree e-mails came from NASA colleagues when word started to spread.

"I got a lot of e-mail from people here at Goddard, saying, 'Where's our moon tree?' "

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