DRAPER, Utah — 49 years ago, Astronaut Stuart Roosa orbited the moon in the command module nicknamed the Kitty Hawk. Inside his personal kit: hundreds of tree seeds he carried into space as part of a joint US Forest Service/NASA experiment.
Before becoming an astronaut, Roosa had been a smokejumper for the US Forest Service. It was that connection that led Ed Cliff, the chief of the forest service, to ask him to carry the seeds during his mission to the moon.
So, armed with a small canister, Roosa carried about 400 – 500 seeds made up of Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Sweetgum, Redwood, and Douglas Fir into space. The seeds made the trip to the moon and back. Then, the forest service germinated them. They gave them out to state forestry organizations as part of the country’s bicentennial celebrations.
“Moon trees” were grown from seeds taken to the moon in early 1971 after orbiting the earth with the Apollo 14 mission, these tree seeds returned to earth and were germinated by the Forest Service. https://t.co/79rcTZQGfx #Apollo #NASA #moontree pic.twitter.com/WcpPEPvUce
— Intermountain Region (@usfs_r4) July 20, 2020
Two of those Moon Trees that made the 238,855 mile trip to the moon and back ended up right here in Utah.
Utah’s last Moon Tree
The state of Utah accepted a pair of sycamore trees. Crews planted one near the Mormon Battalion Monument on the grounds of the Utah State Capitol. The other wound up at the Lone Peak Nursery in Draper, under the care of the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
Unfortunately, the tornado that swept through Salt Lake City in 1999 split that sycamore in half, forcing its removal.
The other, however, is still in place in Draper.
“It’s reaching the end of its life. Trees do have a lifespan and it will die eventually,” Curry said.
In addition to the fungal disease, another factor that could affect the longevity of the tree is the expansion and rezoning of the state prison.
Curry says that his agency is in the early stages of moving the Lone Peak Conservation Center from off the prison grounds where it now sits. He says his department is currently having meetings discussing plans for how to achieve that. As of right now, they do not have any specific plans about the Moon Tree.
Unfortunately, NASA officials say no list or any systematic tracking exists to show where the trees ended up. Of the list of 93 trees NASA does know about, 28 of them later died. Of those that survived, NASA says there was no difference between the growth of the stellar trees compared to their earthbound pairs.