Thousands of people pass a special sycamore tree on the University of Florida campus, not knowing it flew to the moon and back 31 years ago aboard Apollo 14. It made the journey as a seed carried by Stuart A. Roosa, pilot of the command module Kitty Hawk. Each Apollo astronaut was allowed to carry a "personal preference kit" on the space missions.
Alan B. Shepard Jr., Apollo 14 mission commander, carried golf balls and smacked them across the lunar landscape using a geology tool as a driver. Roosa chose to carry a package of tree seeds: Redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir and sweetgum.
Stan Krugman, who was the U.S. Forest Service's staff director for forest genetics research in 1971, selected the seeds.
"I picked redwoods because they were well known, and the others because they would grow well in many parts of the United States," he told NASA.
The seeds came from Forest Service genetics institutes. More than 100 seeds were planted during the 1976 Bicentennial celebration.
Three seeds, a sycamore and two loblolly pines, were sent to the University of Florida, said Noel Lake, retired superintendent of grounds at UF.
The seeds were given to the School of Forestry.
"The technicians germinated the seeds and grew them for about a year," Lake said. "They didn't have the facilities to take them any further, so they brought them to us at the grounds division."
They were planted near the forestry building, without ceremony or public notice. Unfortunately, "Our grounds-keepers, with their string trimmers, girdled the pine trees," Lake said.
The pines died. Lake still speaks of the loss with a tinge of anger and regret. "I don't know why they didn't girdle the sycamore, but it survived."
It is now about 40 feet tall.
"When we planted it, we tried to keep it secret," Lake said. "We were afraid it would be vandalized or somebody might try to steal it."
NASA scientist Dave Williams has found 40 of the trees around the nation and is searching for the others.
Because this was not a formal experiment, few records were kept of where trees were planted.
In 1975 and 1976, trees went to the White House, Independence Square in Philadelphia and Valley Forge. The Emperor of Japan received one.
In Florida, in addition to the University of Florida sycamore, there is a loblolly pine in Forest Capital Park in Perry, a sycamore at Kennedy Space Center and two trees in Tallahassee, a loblolly pine at the Doyle Conner Building and a sycamore at Cascades Park.
Krugman said the moon trees grew normally and reproduced with Earth trees, producing "half moon trees."
In Tampa, there is a half-moon sycamore at the Museum of Science and Industry, planted in 1996.
Williams wants to see if there are any subtle difference in the moon trees and what he might learn from them.
Because Columbia County has so many workers and retirees from other states, it is likely someone here knows of other moon trees.
If you have any information about these trees, you are asked to contact Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His list of known moon trees is on the Internet at http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/moon_tree.html.
If you don't have Internet access to notify Williams of other trees, leave a message for me at the Columbia County Cooperative Extension Office at 752-5384 and I will get the message to him.
I would like to hear from anyone who knows about a moon tree, even if you don't need help contacting NASA.
To learn more about moon trees, visit http://science.nasa.gov/headlines. You can see the Apollo 14 Command Module, Kitty Hawk, at the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville.
NASA continues botanical experiments in space. Scientists were surprised when they inspected samples of fire moss that were on board the space shuttle Columbia.
On Earth, "moss filaments normally grow in an unruly fashion," NASA reports.
On Columbia, "They formed a distinctive clockwise spiral like no moss on Earth."
That is one clue about the surprises waiting for astronauts who plan to create a self-sustaining environment in space.
Before they accomplish that, NASA scientists are creating a new breed of glowing plants - part mustard and part jellyfish - to help humans explore Mars.
They are "adding reporter genes: Part plant, part glowing jellyfish - so that these diminutive explorers can send messages back to Earth about how they are faring on another planet."
Rather than having mechanical or electronic monitors, the plants will glow with a soft green aura when they encounter problems. "Some could report (by glowing) low oxygen levels, while others might signal low water or the wrong mix of nutrients in the soil."
I think glowing indicator plants could be very useful in Earth gardens.
Reprinted from the Lake City Reporter, Lake City, Florida, with permission