NASA searches for Apollo 14’s lost travelers

Dave Williams of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is a man with a mission: to track down hundreds of ‘moon trees’ grown from seeds that went to the moon and back with the Apollo 14 mission.

The whereabouts of more than 50 are known. But many more are out there – or at least, they were.

“Hundreds of moon trees were distributed as seedlings,” says Williams, “but we don’t have systematic records showing where they all went.”

And though some of the trees are long-lived species expected to live hundreds or thousands of years, at least a dozen have died, including the loblolly pine at the White House and a New Orleans pine that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and later removed.

Williams’ search started in 1996, prompted by an email from a  teacher, Joan Goble, asking about a tree at the Camp Koch Girl Scout Camp in Cannelton, Ind. A sign nearby read ‘moon tree’.

“At the time, I had never heard of moon trees,” Williams says. “The sign had a few clues, so I sent a message to the NASA history office and found more bits and pieces on the web. Then I got in touch with Stan Krugman and got more of the story.”

Krugman, a staff director at the Department of Agriculture, was the man who gave the seeds to Stuart Roosa, who stowed them in his personal gear for the Apollo 14 mission.

Back then, biologists weren’t sure the seeds would germinate after such a trip. And a mishap during decontamination procedures made the fate of the seeds even less certain: the canister bearing the seeds was exposed to vacuum and burst, scattering its contents.

But the seeds did germinate, and the trees seemed to grow normally. By 1975, they were ready to leave the Forest Service nurseries. One was sent to Washington Square in Philadelphia to be the first moon tree planted as part of the United States Bicentennial celebrations; another went to the White House. Many more were planted at state capitals, historic locations and space- and forestry-related sites across the country.

When Williams could find no detailed records of which trees went where, he created a webpage to collect as much information as possible. He has now listed trees in 22 states plus Washington DC and Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

“I think when people are aware of the heritage of the trees, they usually take steps to preserve them,” says Williams. “But sometimes people aren’t aware. That’s why we want to locate as many as we can soon. We want to have a record that these trees are – or were – a part of these communities, before they’re gone.”