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Quietly Growing Among Us, These Trees Flew to the Moon and Back

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article-imageThe first Moon Tree, planted in 1975 by George Vitas of the US Forest Service in Washington Square Park, Philadelphia (via Forest History Society)

A tree near you may be secretly extraordinary. On the 1971 Apollo 14 mission, 500 seeds rode aboard the command module, orbiting the moon 34 times in the care of astronaut Stuart Roosa. When the seeds returned to Earth and germinated, they were distributed across the country and even gifted further afield, like one sent to the Emperor of Japan.

These "Moon Trees" were planted between 1975 and 1976 as part of the United States bicentennial celebrations. The sycamores, loblolly pines, sweetgums, redwoods, and Douglas firs flourished just like other trees, despite their experience out of gravity. However, after the fanfare, the extraterrestrial origin story for many of the trees was forgotten.

article-imageSome were given commemorative plaques that wore down with age, but most just became local, obscure oddities. No official list was kept of where the trees were planted. Then in 2011, coordinated by NASA scientist Dave Williams, a search was launched to track down surviving Moon Trees. Partly it was to mark the anniversary of the Apollo 14 moon mission, but also it was a tribute to astronaut Roosa, who had worked for the Forest Service before his space exploration as a smokejumper who parachuted into wildfires. The tree project was a collaboration between NASA and the Forest Service.

Roosa took the little seeds on his flight in a small metal container kept in his personal kit, where nestled in the module they orbited while Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked the moon below. The Moon Tree emblem (at left courtesy of NASA) showed green branches against the lunar surface with an astronaut standing by.

NASA now has a list of over 50 living Moon Trees on its site, and is still looking for more. One is in Monterey, California, in Friendly Plaza, another sycamore is on the front lawn of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. A pine was lost to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, but the first Moon Tree planted still grows in Philadelphia's Washington Square Park. The trees might look like ordinary arbors, but they're significant reminders of the intrepid spirit of NASA's missions to the moon.

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Moon Tree in the International Forest of Friendship, Atchison, Kansas (photograph by Morgan Schwartz/Flickr)

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Moon Tree in the International Forest of Friendship, Atchison, Kansas (photograph by Morgan Schwartz/Flickr)

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Moon Tree in the International Forest of Friendship, Atchison, Kansas (photograph by Morgan Schwartz/Flickr)

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Douglas fir Moon Tree in Wilson Park, Salem, Oregon (photograph by Travel Salem/Flickr)

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Douglas fir Moon Tree in Wilson Park, Salem, Oregon (photograph by Travel Salem/Flickr)

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Moon Tree in Holliston, Massachusetts (photograph by Garrett Coakley/Flickr)

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Moon Tree in Holliston, Massachusetts (photograph by Garrett Coakley/Flickr)

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Moon Tree at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida (photograph by John Stockton/Flickr)

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Kennedy Space Center (photograph by Shannon Moore/Flickr)

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Moon Tree in Washington Square, Philadelphia (photograph by George100/Wikimedia)

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Washington Square, Philadelpia (photograph by George100/Wikimedia)

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Moon Tree in Monterey, California (photograph by Martin Schmidt)

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Moon Tree in Monterey, California (photograph by Martin Schmidt)

article-imageAn Earth Day planting for a second generation Moon Tree by NASA in 2009 (via NASA HQ Photo)









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