We recently asked you what questions you’d like us to answer this year, and we loved all of your submissions, from the nitty gritty of vaccine distribution to the latest in local developments. Today, we’re answering a question from reader AK M. about a galactically-inspired, locally relevant topic: Moon Trees.
Here’s what AK wrote –
“A variety of tree seeds were taken on the Apollo 14 flight to the moon and then the seeds were planted in the US and around the world. Two sycamore trees from these seeds are noted as being planted in WNC – one at the UNC Asheville Botanical Gardens and one at the Cradle of Forestry. What can you find out about these trees?”
Fly me to the moon
Apollo 14 was the third manned spacecraft where humans walked on the moon – it entered orbit on Feb. 4, five days after it launched on Jan. 31, 1971. On the three-person crew: Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, and former US Forest Service smoke jumper Stuart Roosa, who carried over 400 tree seeds with him as part of a joint NASA and USFS initiative.
Roosa and his five varieties of seeds – Douglas fir, Loblolly pine, redwood, sweet gum, and sycamore – orbited the moon 34 times. Why? Scientists wanted to know whether the seeds would be affected by their time in microgravity, including whether they would look the same and reach the same heights as their Earth-bound counterparts.
Here’s our first NC-related tidbit: Apollo 14’s command module, where Roosa was stationed during his time in orbit, was named “Kitty Hawk.”
Unfortunately, the container holding the seeds burst as Apollo 14 was decontaminated after landing back on Earth. The result? All of the seeds mixed together. On top of that, scientists thought they would no longer be viable. They were still shipped on to Forest Service labs, where researchers found out that they would, indeed, still germinate.
And not only did they sprout, after 20 years there were also no measurable differences with trees whose trees never left the ground.
The seedlings, now named the Moon Trees, were planted at landmarks across the world. Many went into the ground during the US’s bicentennial in 1976 at sites like the White House, Independence Square (Philadelphia), the NASA Kennedy Space Center, university campuses + state capitols. A few were gifted to more cosmopolitan recipients, including the Emperor of Japan.
This is where our story gets local: two of the seedlings – both sycamores – were planted right here in the 828.
One sycamore is in the Cradle of Forestry (11250 Pisgah Hwy., Pisgah National Forest) near the Forestry Discovery Center and is marked with a plaque. The other, planted on Arbor Day in 1976, is at UNC Asheville’s Botanical Gardens (151 W.T. Weaver Blvd.). Get the coordinates to find it yourself here.
DYK: While almost all of the seeds were sent out for planting, no official records were kept of where the trees actually ended up, so information has been pieced together since then by the Moon Trees’ many fans. About 80 of the trees have been tracked + verified so far. And a second generation of Moon Trees, “half-moon trees,” have also been planted from seeds and cuttings of the original trees. One of these is in NC, at Sloan Park in Mt. Ulla (about two hours east of Asheville). Think you have a lead on a Moon Tree? You can email the info to NASA here.