It has been 50 years since Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module and onto the surface of the moon. The groundbreaking achievements of the Apollo missions are celebrated in museums and science centers across the country. But there is another place you can appreciate the legacy of this lunar landmark—under a tree!
The Moon Trees
Astronauts aren’t the only living things to have orbited the moon. In 1971, astronaut Stuart Roosa brought hundreds of tree seeds into space during the Apollo 14 mission. The seeds circled the moon with Roosa in the command module, while crew mates Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell explored the lunar surface below.
When Apollo 14 and its crew returned to earth, Roosa sent the seeds to the Forest Service which was able to successfully germinate most of them. The saplings—redwood, sycamore, loblolly pine, douglas fir, and sweetgum—were sent across the country to government offices, museum grounds, parks, and botanical gardens. Many were planted in celebration of America’s bicentennial in 1976.
Dubbed “Moon Trees,” they serve as a living monument to Roosa and the Apollo missions. A list of known moon trees is maintained by Dr. Dave Williams at NASA, and includes a sycamore planted in Missouri at Walther Park in De Soto. There is also a list of second-generation moon trees.
A Space Tree ‘Discovery’
There are many mysteries of the cosmos. Are we alone in the universe? What’s inside a black hole? Does the Missouri Botanical Garden have a moon tree? The answer to that last question was a little easier to solve than the first two.
The Garden’s Living Collections Management System (LCMS) is a massive database of Garden plants and plant information. It has a special category for “Space Trees” with two entries which include the notation “Seed was sent into space before germinated.” Both trees are sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua), one of the tree species brought along on the Apollo 14 mission.
But that’s where the trail of clues leads us in a different direction. Our space trees were added to the records in 1992, two decades after the original moon tree seeds went to space. And the original paper records include the note “Seeds from Space Shuttle,” not from an Apollo mission. Then, we reached out to astronaut Charlie Walker.
Our space trees did take a trip to space, not onboard an Apollo capsule, but on the maiden voyage of the space shuttle Discovery in 1984. Walker was on the shuttle crew as the first commercially sponsored payload specialist, working for St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas. Walker also brought some 200 sweetgum seeds with him on Discovery, which orbited the earth from August 30 to September 5, 1984.
After the mission, the tree seeds were germinated by the U.S. Forest Service in Walker’s hometown of Bedford, Indiana. Walker worked for the Forest Service during his college years at Purdue University—work he says helped inspire him to bring the seeds to space in the first place.
Nicknamed “space gummies” or “shuttle gums,” Walker donated several seedlings to his college alma mater. Others were planted outside the Forest Service office in Bedford. One was planted outside Building 100 at McDonnell Douglas headquarters in St. Louis County (now Boeing).
Walker says two of the shuttle gum seedlings were given by McDonnell Douglas to the Missouri Botanical Garden at the suggestion of his wife, Susan Flowers, a spokeswoman for McDonnell Douglas and former manager of public relations for the Garden.
Sadly, one of the Garden’s space trees died in 2007. But the remaining sweetgum stands just a few feet from Henry Shaw’s mausoleum. Last measured in 2012, it stands more than 50 feet tall. The Garden is now working on a way to help better identify the tree for visitors.
Plants in Space
Trees are far from the only plants sent to space in the 50 years since Apollo 11 first landed on the moon. The Tomatosphere project is a long-running educational opportunity for students on earth to grow tomatoes from seed sent to the International Space Station.
In 2014 NASA launched the Veggie Plant Growth System to test the viability and sustainability of growing fresh vegetables in space. Just as they are on earth, plants are critical to long-term space exploration, such as plans to eventually send humans to Mars.
Cassidy Moody — Senior Digital Media Specialist