Part of Stuart Roosa’s early career was spent as a smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service, trained to parachute into erupting forest fires.
Given his forestry interest and background, Roosa agreed to pack away on his Moon trek 400 to 500 tree seeds, a project conceived by the astronaut and individuals from the U.S. Forest Service. Seeds were chosen from five different types of trees: loblolly pine, sycamore, sweet gum, redwood, and Douglas fir.
After the seeds were returned to Earth in February 1971, Forest Service geneticists began germinating them. Nearly all the seeds germinated successfully, and in just a few years, forestry experts had some 420 to 450 seedlings – some from cuttings.
Between 1975 and 1976 – as part of America’s bicentennial festivities – many of the seedlings were distributed to a host of state forestry organizations. Seedling planting sites were picked based on where the type of tree species would best take root and grow.
Not only did the White House receive a tree, a loblolly pine, other trees were planted in Brazil, Switzerland, and presented to such notables as the Emperor of Japan.
Known as the "Moon Trees," plantings were made in such spots as Washington Square in Philadelphia, at Valley Forge and at several universities and NASA centers. Second-generation Moon Trees have also been planted from seeds or cuttings from an original Moon Tree.
President Gerald Ford, in a bicentennial Moon Tree ceremony, called the trees living symbols of "our spectacular human and scientific achievements."
"It is a fitting tribute to our national space program which has brought out the best of American patriotism, dedication and determination to succeed," Ford said in a telegram to numbers of ceremonies across the country that were dedicating a Moon Tree.
However, the Moon Trees spawn yet another message, said Dave Williams, a curator at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s National Space Science Data Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Williams feels that the Moon Trees make an "unspoken connection between space exploration and life."
"I think 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," Williams told SPACE.com.
Williams said that there is nothing fundamentally different about the Moon Trees. While they circled the Moon, the seeds were not physically altered in any way by being in the space environs. "But they are still viewed as being set apart from other trees," he said.
There is a kind of kinship, Williams said, between the Moon Trees and those first images taken of Earth by Moon-bound astronauts. "I think the Apollo 8 images of the Earth showing the entire globe from a distance really brought this home to people. It changed our perspective on the Earth as a tiny oasis of life in a pretty barren universe," he said.
Williams is now on a quest to locate all the sites where the Moon Trees have been planted. It appears that no formal list of their locations was ever maintained.
A special Web site has been created to help replant interest and understanding regarding the Moon Trees: