Photography by NASA

Moon Tree

Field Notes

THERE IS NORMALLY a great deal of height involved. A female cone sprouts on a high branch, producing a few winged seeds at the base of each scale. They might get brushed off by a passing squirrel, or a storm might blow them to the ground, two hundred feet below. Though smaller than an oat and lighter than a grain of sand, redwood seeds are built to weather that journey down to the alien territory of the forest floor—nature’s astronauts.

In 1971, more than four hundred of these and other tree seeds were collected and ensconced in an aluminum canister. They were chosen from across the United States: the resinous sweet gum and mud-loving southern loblolly; the northwestern Douglas fir, green and mossy; the sycamore leafing over mid-western flood plains; and the coastal redwood, stretching along the sandy loam of the Pacific. For all the preparations involved, NASA’s plan was simple at its heart: let’s see how they handle this journey.

 

 

Where do the moon trees live? For more information visit NASA.

 

Twelve minutes after liftoff, they’d left our atmosphere and were floating within the canister, rattling against its sides. There was no water, no soil. And like the astronauts with whom they traveled, the only air they’d been given was trapped within their container. Four days later, when they slid into orbit around the far side of the moon, there was no sun. Beyond their thin walls, the entire world was a dark and lifeless void.

 

 

They eventually completed the longest journey ever made by seeds and touched down back on Earth. On landing in the South Pacific, the canister was held for the first time since it had been packed. The plan was to clean it, plant the seeds, and witness how being carried so far from their habitat might affect their growth. But the decontamination chamber ruptured the seal on the canister, spraying the seeds in an explosion they were assumed not to survive.

 

The planet longs for the survival of its littlest organisms,
and soil can unfurl miracles.

 

Despite nearly unanimous skepticism, the experiment was seen through. The kernels were gathered together and hand-sorted into two envelopes that were mailed to laboratories in California and Mississippi, where, under the bubble of a greenhouse, each seed was returned to the earth. Seemingly stripped beyond what they could bear, they were expected to be unresponsive. But the planet longs for the survival of its littlest organisms, and soil can unfurl miracles. In the end, more than four hundred seedlings pushed their delicate green shoots up into the world.

The subsequent transplanting of the moon trees was a jubilant mess. Some were installed on the grounds of historic buildings, including the White House; others took root in neighborhoods—in front of a public library, a junior high, a hospital, a cemetery. Most were left unmarked, destined to flourish anonymously, far outliving the astronauts who first brought them into the skies.

 

 

Moon Tree is part of new section called Field Notes. Special thanks to Dr. Dave Williams of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and John Nelson of ESRI.

 

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Natalie Middleton is a freelance writer educated at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in science writing and communication.

Comments

  1. What a phenomenal story, nature will always outlive us, resilient, strong and permanent!

  2. I found the article very interesting . I was not aware of this program but glad to know it happened. I am enjoying The Secret Life of Trees right now so this was a nice addition.

  3. My town of Athens GA just rededicated our moon tree adding a plaque so that future residents can recognize it. We have one of the pines, it’s doing well and inauspiciously growing and thriving. It sits in front of what is now our planning department but was the library when the tree was planted. We are lucky not have lost the tree in redevelopment. I hope other communities know where their moons trees are and I hope they are thriving.

  4. Sure says something about life and surviving. Nice.

  5. This is an amazing article and I can’t wait to go visit a moon tree near me.

  6. Resilience. Nature always finds a way.

  7. Thank you for thinking and completing this amazing project. What a great experiment! Keep thinking up cool ideas like this.

  8. Folks: Interesting. As part of one of the Shuttle missions, I believe it was Mark Kelly who carried Birch Tree seeds from Liberty State Park on a mission. Upon return I grew out the seedlings. Of the hundred or so seeds a few sprouted which is normal for Birch. The seedlings were planted in the park, except for one. That one is in my front yard.

  9. Beautiful essay, thank you! Most human triumphs throughout history could probably be called “a jubilant mess,” as you creatively describe the distribution and planting of the moon trees that actually germinated. Too often we’ve edited out the awkward messy parts, and we lose a lot of perspective in the process. As a footnote, let’s also remember Stuart Roosa (1933-1994), Apollo 14 Command Module Pilot, who agreed to carry the seeds among the limited personal effects each astronaut was allowed. Before he became an Air Force test pilot and a NASA astronaut, Roosa was a US Forest Service smoke jumper, parachuting into active fires in Oregon and California in 1953. As both a space geek and a forester, who clearly remembers both Apollo 14 and the US Bicentennial five years later, I’m embarrassed to admit that I never knew (or had forgotten) that a smokejumper had been to the moon until your essay inspired me to get re-acquainted with the Moon Tree story ( more details here: https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/moon_tree.html )

  10. This gives us hope for the whole planet and its survival

  11. I grew up in Atchison, KS, and remember when the Moon Tree was planted. The International Forest of Friendship was started by The 99’s, a women’s aviator group of which Amelia Earhart was a founding member. It’s a beautiful area, and whenever I return for a visit to my hometown, it’s the place I’m most eager to see.

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