Edgar Mitchell

The Moon Trees

Bicentennial_moon_tree

“Scattered around our planet are hundreds of creatures that have been to the Moon and back again. None of them are human.”—NASA

ORBITAL ORCHARD

On January 31, 1971, Apollo 14 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, launching astronauts Edgar Mitchell, Alan Shepard, and Stuart Roosa to the moon. Roosa, an Air Force test pilot, had also served as a “smokejumper” for the U.S. Forest Service, parachuting out of planes to help put out forest fires. He and a colleague named Stan Krugman wanted to find out whether tree seeds would still grow after a trip to space.

With the approval of NASA, Krugman chose five varieties: sycamores, sweetgums, Douglas firs, redwoods, and loblolly pines. He chose most of them because they grow well all over the country, and chose redwoods because they are so well-known. He kept an identical group on Earth as a control. “The scientists wanted to find out what would happen to these seeds if they took a ride to the Moon,” said Krugman. “Would the trees look normal?”

APOLLO FORE-TEEN

Apollo 14 is famous for a different experiment: moon golf. While Roosa (and his 500 seeds) orbited in the Kitty Hawk command module 118 miles above the surface, Alan Shepard used a modified lunar collection device to send a few chip shots into the Fra Mauro crater. On the mission’s return to Earth, the seeds were accidentally exposed to a vacuum during decontamination procedures. They were “traumatized,” said Krugman, but after careful attention, they all started growing.

NASA gave away most of the Moon Trees—which is what they’re called—as part of America’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1976. One was planted in Philadelphia’s Independence Square by Roosa…