Tree From Space
Forty years ago a Monterey resident orbited the moon with the Apollo 14 astronauts.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
We all carry things: keys, cell phones, wallets. We carry our memories, goals and dreams. On vacations we carry toiletries and (hopefully) fresh underwear.
So it stands to reason that astronauts are allowed to carry along a small number of personal items in what they call a “PPK,” or Personal Preference Kit. When Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, he had pieces of the Wright Brothers’ famous plane in his PPK. On the Apollo 14 mission, Alan Shepard took two golf balls that he hit on the lunar surface using a golf club he MacGyver’d out of a tool and the head of a 6-iron he brought in his kit.
For the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, astronaut Stuart Roosa carried along something else: seeds. They eventually returned to Earth; today his “moon trees” are growing all over the United States and other parts of the world, including Japan, Brazil, and Switzerland. One is right under the noses – and towering over the heads – of locals residents in downtown Monterey’s Friendly Plaza, adjacent to Colton Hall.
While Shepard was playing golf, Roosa was orbiting the moon in the command module. He was charged with taking pictures of the lunar terrain, and doing gravitational and radar experiments. Roosa carried 400-500 seeds from five species of trees in his PPK: sweetgum, loblolly pine, sycamore, douglas fir, and redwood. In the 33 hours Roosa was alone in the module, he and his seeds orbited 34 times.
Roosa was a former smoke jumper for the United States Forest Service, parachuting into forest fires in remote areas to help put them out from the ground. In 1953, he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he became a fighter pilot and eventually graduated from the Aerospace Test Pilot School in 1966 to be an experimental test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert.
In 1966, he was chosen to join NASA Astronaut Group 5, which would command the remaining Apollo missions.
It was Roosa’s connection to the Forest Service that inspired him to take the seeds, for the sake of science and to generate some publicity.
When Apollo 14 returned to Earth, the seeds were germinated side by side with terrestial tree seeds to see if there would be a difference as they grew. Scientists didn’t expect any anomalies from the seeds carried into space.
Roger Stutts, who worked as resource manager in the lab at the Institute of Forest Genetics in Placerville Calif., received some of the seeds.
“The Douglas fir and the coast redwood came to Placerville,” he says. “They germinated quite normally. Some hoped the trees would grow differently.”
From there meticulous moon tree tracking was not a high priority.
“There really isn’t a record of where they were planted,” Stutts adds.
Today Dave Williams, planetary curation scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, keeps track of all the known moon trees.
But Williams, who started at NASA in 1993, only learned what a moon tree was several years later. A third grade teacher in Indiana by the name of Joan e-mailed him to find out more about a tree she and her class had found with a commemorative plaque attached to it saying it had gone to the moon.
“I was able to find a few clippings on my own and I put them up on the web,” he says. “There were six or seven trees listed on the web at first, and then every month or so I would get an e-mail about another. Now we have about 60 listed.”
Williams speaks with reverence when asked what the trees represent.
“You can go up to the tree, touch it, and say, ‘The seed from this tree went around the moon with the Apollo astronauts,’” he says. “It’s pretty cool.”
It wasn’t until years later that Williams got word about Monterey’s well-traveled redwood.
“It was July 18, 1999 when I got an e-mail from Bill O’Hare who sent me a picture of the tree and the plaque in Monterey,” he says.
The first moon tree planted was a Sycamore seedling near Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Penn., on May 6, 1975. Roosa attended. Even President Gerald Ford got involved, sending a telegram in lieu of attending.
“This tree,” Ford wrote, “is a living symbol of our spectacular human and scientific achievements… and may it inspire us to strive for the kind of growth that benefits our own citizens and all mankind.”
Monterey’s moon tree lives in Friendly Plaza at Colton Hall in Monterey. A moon tree list can be found at nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/moon_tree.html