Saturday, May 12, 2012

to the moon and back, Alice!

Apollo Moon Tree grows at 
Sycamore Shoals

In the summer of 1953, Stuart Roosa took a job as a smokejumper fighting wildfires in Oregon with the U.S. Forest Service. In addition to an affinity for heights, he soon developed a love of trees. Roosa’s courage eventually led him to become an Air Force test pilot, which caught the attention of NASA. In 1966, Roosa became an astronaut, a job that would take him farther away from terra firma than a smokejumper ever gets.

On January 31, 1971, Roosa along with Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell were aboard Apollo 14 when it launched from Cape Kennedy on its way to the moon. Tensions were high. It was the first mission since the near disaster of Apollo 13 the previous April, but this time, all went flawlessly.

In those days, each astronaut was allowed to take along a few personal items affectionately known as PPKs (Personal Preference Kits). Usually they were small mementos: stamps, coins, family photos. On this flight, Shepard took two famous golf balls that he smacked around the lunar surface with a makeshift six-iron. 

Because of Roosa’s love of trees he took a small metal canister filled with hundreds of tree seeds. Working with the U.S. Forest Service’s Stan Krugman, their crude experiment was simple enough: Would seeds taken to the moon sprout back on earth? Would the weightless journey alter them or would they germinate and grow normally?

Krugman, staff director for forest genetics research in 1971, chose the seeds: redwood, loblolly pine, Douglas fir, sweetgum and sycamore.

Apollo 14 launched 31 January 1971
In space, the seeds stayed with Rossa while he piloted the command module Kitty Hawk around the moon 34 times. Shepard and Mitchell took the lunar lander Antares down to the surface on February 5 spending 33 hours on the moon collecting 94 pounds of rocks.

Back on Earth, the Roosa’s tree seeds were sent to forestry labs in Mississippi and California, where much to the delight of everyone involved, most of them germinated. 

One of the seedlings, a sycamore, made its way to Elizabethton in Carter County where today it grows, safe and protected, inside one of the region's oldest forts....

For the rest of my article about the Moon Tree at Sycamore Shoals look for the May/June 2012 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.

(For the complete story of the Apollo 14 moon tree, Sycamore Shoals and sycamore trees themselves look for my first book Natural Histories.)

1 comment:

Marie said...

This is wonderful! Would love to see that tree some time. What an interesting post!