The American moon missions, greater than 50 years later, are every memorable in their very own method. Apollo 11, in fact, is thought for being the very first time human beings set foot on the moon. Apollo 12, for being somewhat rowdier. Apollo 13, for practically ending in catastrophe. Apollo 14—the third of six moon landings—is thought, as I not too long ago found, for its “moon timber.”
Stuart Roosa, one of many Apollo 14 astronauts, took a small canvas bag of tree seeds with him on the journey. Whereas his fellow astronauts walked on the lunar floor, Roosa and the seeds flew spherical and around the moon till the crew was prepared to come back again. A number of years after the astronauts returned house, a few of the seeds—sycamores, redwoods, pines, firs, and sweetgums—have been planted throughout america, to see how they’d develop, or just to maintain a chunk of moon historical past shut by.
I realized concerning the existence of moon timber earlier this month whereas serious about the anniversary of Apollo 14, which launched on this present day in 1971. (My drained pandemic mind had thought this yr was the mission’s fiftieth anniversary, however seems we’re residing in 2022!) I learn on-line that one moon tree, a loblolly pine, had been planted by the White Home, inside strolling distance of my house in Washington, D.C. What an excellent pandemic-appropriate outing for an area reporter, I assumed. Then I observed an asterisk subsequent to the tree’s identify, and scrolled down to find: “An asterisk denotes a tree that’s not alive.”
That I may discover a database of those timber, and undergo the expertise of figuring out and dropping the moon tree nearest me in 5 seconds, is due to Dave Williams, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard House Flight Heart, who 25 years in the past took it upon himself to find as lots of them as he may. NASA didn’t preserve any data on the place the seeds from Apollo 14 ended up, nor did the company sustain with the timber they grew to become. However Williams does, although it’s not a part of his job description. He isn’t a tree professional, however he has change into, by his efforts, the world’s foremost—and maybe solely—professional on moon timber.
Williams was as soon as simply as stunned as I used to be concerning the existence of those timber. He found them in 1996, by a third-grade trainer in Indiana. Joan Goble and her class had been engaged on a undertaking about timber close to their faculty, and a scholar got here in sooner or later saying she’d heard that one thing referred to as a moon tree grew at a close-by Woman Scout camp. When the category went on the market, they discovered a wholly normal-looking sycamore, with somewhat plaque subsequent to it that described the sycamore as a moon tree. Goble’s class wished to write down a radical report, so the trainer emailed NASA for extra data.
Nobody in Williams’s workplace in Maryland, not even the oldsters who had labored at NASA in the course of the Apollo program, had heard of a moon tree. Williams checked with the company’s historical past workplace, which uncovered some newspaper clippings revealing the existence of at the least six such timber. From the surface, the moon timber have been no completely different than their Earth-bound brethren. “There’s nothing unusual concerning the moon timber in any respect,” Williams stated. He emailed Goble again with what he’d realized, after which continued to dig.
Williams found that the top of the U.S. Forest Service had pitched Roosa, a former smoke jumper who fought forest fires, on the concept. The astronaut took about 500 seeds stuffed in sealed luggage inside a metallic canister, packed within the small canvas bag that each Apollo astronaut was allowed to fill with no matter they wished. When the astronauts got here again, the sealed luggage went by a vacuum chamber—a part of the usual decontamination protocol on the time—and unintentionally burst, scattering the seeds. Stan Krugman, a geneticist on the forest service, sorted them by hand, then handed them on to a scientist who used some to experiment with germination at NASA’s Johnson House Heart, in Houston. The remainder have been despatched to forestry-science amenities, which doled them out to communities throughout the nation, grateful for a free piece of the Apollo period to boost their municipal grounds.
The timber, planted largely in 1976, took root simply high quality on Earth. Among the moon seeds have been planted subsequent to seeds that had by no means traveled to area, to see whether or not they’d develop any in a different way. Essentially the most shocking outcome, Williams informed me, occurred when the 2 seeds grew into two utterly completely different species—a results of a gardening mixup, in fact, not the bizarre results of microgravity. NASA didn’t undertake any critical research of the moon timber. The trouble was extra a PR stunt, Williams stated, than a science experiment.
After Williams wrote again to Goble, he posted an attraction on-line, asking anybody who got here throughout a moon tree to contact him at NASA. Their story had been forgotten as soon as, and if he didn’t preserve monitor of those timber, who would?
After which individuals began reaching out, telling Williams that they’d noticed a tree paired with an intriguing plaque on their hike round city, sharing footage. Through the years, Williams has waited for the moon timber to disclose themselves on this method, by an emailed proof of life. “It actually can go for fairly some time with getting nothing,” he stated. “After which I’ll get a bunch.” As of in the present day, Williams has situated about 100 timber. Of these, 30 have died or been lower down. The sycamore that Goble found remains to be there; a storm twisted its high off not too long ago, however the tree has managed to get well, she informed me.
Williams thinks that extra undiscovered moon timber are on the market. He simply heard from a scholar at Delta State College, in Mississippi, who stated they’ve heard rumors a few moon tree someplace on campus and can attempt to discover it, promising Williams that they’ll report again. Williams has visited fairly a couple of over time, and even hosted Goble and a few of her college students in Maryland to point out them the sycamore rising close to the Goddard middle. What’s it like, I requested, seeing a moon tree? Isn’t it sort of anticlimactic, as a result of it doesn’t look any completely different? To not them. “I’m simply in awe that this seed, the seed it grew from, went to area,” Goble stated. “It went to orbit the moon.”
That’s why individuals see the moon timber as particular: They know the place these seeds went. Reaching the moon doesn’t take lengthy—Apollo astronauts took simply three days to get there—but it surely’s the moon. Folks haven’t stepped foot on the lunar floor since 1972, and it’s unclear when the subsequent crew will go. All of the trinkets and tchotchkes that the Apollo astronauts took with them of their private canvas luggage are cool because of this, bestowed with a magical sheen the second they have been returned to Earth—area souvenirs. However the seeds that Roosa, who died in 1994, carried really feel completely different from different mementos. They weren’t put in museums or auctioned off. They have been buried within the soil of the Earth, the one soil prefer it within the photo voltaic system—in the whole universe, so far as we all know. Some might need disappeared, felled by storms or saws, earlier than somebody may discover them and really feel curious sufficient to ask NASA about them. However the ones that stay reside monuments to the time humankind escaped this world’s gravity and felt that of one other.