NASA share the preparation ahead of Artemis I's moon launch
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On February 5, 1971, NASA’s Apollo 14 lunar module took Commander Alan Shephard and Pilot Edgar Mitchell to become the fifth and sixth men to walk on the Moon. Back in orbit, Pilot Stuart Roosa remained aboard “Kitty Hawk”, the command module, performing experiments and photographing the lunar surface for nearly two days. However, the astronaut was not left entirely on his own, for he was accompanied by several hundred seeds that he had carefully brought with him from Earth in his personal kit. On his return, the seeds, which had orbited the Moon some 34 times, were sent for planting — becoming the so-called “Moon Trees”.
NASA historian Brian Odom said: “The historic voyages of the Apollo programme were about bold exploration and incredible scientific discovery.”
“Apollo 14 included the widest range of scientific experiments to that point in the programme, but in the case of Roosa’s ‘Moon Trees’, it was what the astronauts took with them on their lunar journey that has left such an indelible mark on the landscape back on Earth.”
The idea for the Moon Trees experiment was proposed to Mr Roosa by Ed Cliff, the then chief of the United States Forest Service, who knew the astronaut from his days as a “smokejumper”, a wildland firefighter dropped into the danger zone by parachute.
A mix of scientific experiment and public engagement activity, the concept was to take seeds of five species of tree — Douglas fir, loblolly pine, redwood, sweetgum, and sycamore — around the Moon, plant them back on Earth, and see if the plants developed any differently.
Despite a little accident on Apollo 14’s return — with the canister containing all the seeds rupturing during the decontamination process, mixing them all together and subjecting them to a vacuum environment — the seeds were nevertheless sent to Forest Service stations in Gulfport, Mississippi and Placerville, California for germination.
After a few years, despite fears that the seeds had died in the low-pressure accident, the service had around 420 successful seedlings, some of which were planted alongside their non-spacefaring counterparts.
According to NASA, no differences were ever identified between the Moon Trees and these control specimens.
In 1975–6, as part of the celebrations around the 200th anniversary of American Independence, many of the plants were given away, with the saplings spread out across the US and even overseas to locales like Lucerne in Switzerland and Santa Rosa, Brazil.
One was even planted in the gardens of the White House in Washington, DC, with the then US President Gerald Ford calling the tree a “living symbol of our spectacular human and scientific achievements”.
At this point, however, the Moon Trees fell temporarily into obscurity, with their locations — many of which had sadly not been well-documented — lost to the annals of history.
Interest in the seedlings from Apollo 14 was rekindled in 1996, when third-grade teacher Joan Gable of Cannelton, Indiana wrote to NASA about a “Moon Tree” that she and her class had discovered locally and which they had decided to research further.
Identified by its plaque, the tree — a sycamore — had been planted in the Camp Koch Girl Scout Camp in Cannelton back in 1976.
Ms Gable’s letter came to the attention of NASA geophysicist Dr Dave Williams who, like many of his colleagues at the time, was quite unaware of the existence of the Moon Trees.
With the help of archived newspaper clippings and the staff at the NASA History Office, however, Dr Williams was able to piece together the story of the Moon Trees — and set about on a quest, to track down the location of the other trees with the public’s help.
Today, NASA maintains a list of the locations of 113 of the original Moon Trees, around 30 of which have unfortunately died, while Mr Roosa’s daughter Rosemary operated the “Moon Tree Foundation”, which works to plant saplings grown from the seeds of the original trees.
Original Moon Trees can still be seen today at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis and the Swiss Transport Museum in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Rumours had it, however, that between 12–15 of the saplings were sent by Mr Roosa over to the UK — including to the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire.
As part of their bicentennial celebrations, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) has spent the last year endeavouring to track these UK-based Moon Trees down. The mission has proved to be challenging.
RAS vice president Professor Steve Miller told Express.co.uk: “Everywhere we went, we got a kind of blank. I mean, we could see on the web that there were these various Moon trees over in the United States.
“But as to any seeds that might have come directly from Stuart Roosa over to people in the UK? Nothing!”
The search was not completely fruitless, however, with the investigation revealing, for example, the existence of a “second-generation” Moon Tree — grown from the seeds of one of the original space-faring specimens — in a private garden in Flamstead, Hertfordshire.
The owner, Prof Miller said, has been trying to grow cuttings from the sycamore maple specimen, but to no success yet, with the tree not mature and not producing seeds.
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The Society is in the process of receiving five seeds from Rosemary, Mr Roosa’s daughter, however — and has also been given three seeds from a first-generation Moon Tree grown in the US.
Attempts to grow Moon Trees from these seeds over the last few months, Prof Miller said, have been met with one “definite success” — largely because of the diligent efforts of fellow RAS administrative officer Richard O’Sullivan’s parents, who have been giving the seedling the tender loving care it needs to thrive in their conservatory in north-west London.
It is hoped that, when it has sufficiently grown, the tree will be able to be planted in a public setting as both a commemoration of 200 years of the Royal Astronomical Society, but also in memory of all the fellows and their colleagues who died during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Prof Miller, it is too early to pick a permanent home for the tree, but one idea being explored is whether it might be possible to arrange to place it in London’s Green Park, which is close to the RAS offices in Burlington House, on Piccadilly.
As the Moon Trees continue to fascinate, so do they inspire similar projects being carried out in the present day.
Last month, British astronaut Tim Peake and MP Andrea Leadsom planted a tree at Woolsthorpe Manor, the family home of Sir Isaac Newton, grown from one of a number of seeds that the former took to spend six months in the microgravity conditions onboard the International Space Station back in 2015.
The seeds were sourced from the famous “Flower of Kent” tree said to have inspired the influential natural philosopher to formulate his law of universal gravitation after he watched an apple fall from its branches — or, in more apocryphal tellings, felt one fell onto his head.
A scion grown from Newton’s original apple tree that had been planted in the Cambridge University Botanical Garden back in 1954 recently and sadly made the news after being felled in Storm Eunice last month — although experts believe the iconic fixture of the gardens had already died prior to the accident.
In total, eight of the young trees were cultivated as part of the “Pips in Space” project, which was led by the UK Space Agency, the National Trust and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
At the planting event, Mr Peake said: “My mission to space was named Principia in homage to Newton’s defining work that included his world-changing ideas about gravity.
“I wanted my Principia mission to inspire others, particularly young people, with the adventure of space and the excitement of science.
“Thanks to the careful nurturing at Kew, the apple pips that flew with me into space have grown into fine young trees which I hope will continue to inspire potential Isaac Newtons.”
Alongside the one planted at Woolsthorpe Manor, “Pips in Space” trees have also been planted at the Eden Project in Cornwall, the Jodrell Bank radio observatory in Cheshire and the National Physical Laboratory in Middlesex.
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