Stuart Roosa and the Moon Tree Seeds

In 1951, Stuart Roosa, then 17 and freshly graduated from high school, took a summer job with the U.S. Forest Service (U.S.F.S.) along with some of his friends. They worked in Idaho on a project to control blister rust disease on pine trees, and was also part of a wildland firefighting ground crew. This is where he met hos first smokejumpers, firefighter who would parachute out of airplanes to fight fires in isolated, hard-to-reach areas. The next year he visited Cave Junction, site of the Siskiyou smokejumpers base, and stayed in the bunkhouse with the smokejumpers. This whetted his apetite enough that he applied and was accepted for training in 1953.

[Roosa and smokejumpers class of 1953]
Smokejumpers class of 1953, Stuart Roosa is standing, fourth from left

Roosa, based at Siskiyou, made many training jumps and four active jumps in Oregon and California in the 1953 fire season. After that summer, he joined the U.S. Air Force Cadet program. He went on to become a test pilot, and in 1966 was selected as one of 19 members of the 5th astronaut class and was chosen to be the Apollo 14 Command Module pilot. Ed Cliff, Chief of the Forest Service, knew of Roosa from his days as a smokejumper, and he, Roosa, and other Forest Service members came up with the idea for the Moon Tree project. Stan Krugman headed up the project and selected the seeds to be taken. "It was part science, part public relations", Krugman joked.

[Ostrum letter, 20 May 1971] [Dinus letter, 10 July 1972]
Carl Ostrum letter giving sources of seeds / Ron Dinus letter transferring seeds to Placerville

The species selected were sycamore, loblolly pine, sweetgum, redwood, and Douglas fir, taken from lots of seeds collected at two U.S.F.S. Institute of Forest Genetics (I.F.G.) stations, the southern station in Gulport, Mississippi, and the western station in Placerville, California. Each lot had seeds from a known source or locality, seeds of each species were selected from one or two lots (see list), roughly 500 seeds for each species.

The seeds were sealed in plastic bags under the direction of Stan Krugman and Dr. Charles Walkinshaw, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist on special assignment with NASA at Johnson Space Center Houston. These were then put into a 3-inch diameter, 6-inch long cylindrical metal canister and stored in Stuart Roosa's personal (or pilot's) preference kit (PPK). The PPK was a small canvas bag, each astronaut was allowed to take whatever they chose with them. Many took photos, souvenirs, etc. to leave at the Moon or to bring back to Earth. Stuart Roosa brought tree seeds.

[Roosa and canister] [Mike Collins' PPK]
Stuart Roosa holding the canister containing the tree seeds / Michael Collins' PPK at NASM

The seeds stayed with him in the Command Module from launch on January 31, 1971 until splashdown on February 9, orbiting the Moon 34 times. After landing, the astronauts were quarantined in an isolation chamber (The Mobile Quarantine Facility) for 17 days to make sure they hadn't brought back any contamination from space. Similarly, everything else they had, including the PPKs, were put through a decontamination procedure as well.

[Apollo 14 Mobile Quarantine Facility] [Florida Today Article, 16 November 2002]
Apollo 14 Mobile Quarantine Facility display on the U.S.S. Hornet and part of Florida Today article on Stan Krugman and the seed bags exploding

Part of the decontamination procedure involved putting everything in a vacuum chamber. Unfortunately when this was done the sealed bags, which had been removed from the cannister, burst due to the pressure difference. The seeds were exposed to vacuum and spread all over the chamber. It was feared the seeds might no longer be viable due to the explosive decompression and exposure to vacuum, but Stan Krugman had the technicians gather up the seeds and give them to him. He proceeded to sort all the seeds by hand, and then gave them to Dr. Walkinshaw to be germinated.

A large selection of the seeds were tried, and it quickly became apparent that the adventure in the vacuum chamber had not damaged the seeds. Most of them began to grow as expected. Unfortunately, the facilities in Houston were not adequate to maintain the seedlings, and most, if not all of them, died within a year. The remaining seeds were sent to the IFG stations they came from, in Gulfport and Placerville, and with the better facilities there the seeds were grown into healthy seedlings, which went on to become the Moon Trees.

[Bicentennial Report vol. 2]

According to the entry above, from the "Bicentennial of the U.S.A. Final Report to the People"", vol. 2, 1977, seedlings were planted in 40 states. As of March, 2022, our list contains trees, living and dead, from 31 states. Two states (Nevada and North Dakota) are known to have received Douglas firs, but their disposition is unknown. Another two states (Maine and Minnesota) were allotted Douglas fir seedlings, but never requested them.

First two images and letters credit U.S. Forest Service
PPK image credit National Air and Space Museum - all rights reserved
Apollo 14 MQF image credit Dave Williams
News clipping credit Florida Today and Ken Roberts
Bottom clipping courtesy Erica Botkin


History of the Moon Coastal Redwoods
History of the Moon Douglas Firs
History of the Moon Sycamores, Loblolly Pines, and Sweetgums

Moon Tree Home Page


NASA
Author/Curator:
Dr. David R. Williams, dave.williams@nasa.gov
NSSDCA, Mail Code 690.1
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Greenbelt, MD 20771
+1-301-286-1258


NASA Official: Dave Williams, david.r.williams@nasa.gov
Last Updated: 1 March 2022, DRW