Spring 2010

[News]

Unraveling the Moon Tree Mystery

Redwoods on campus grew from seeds that orbited the moon almost 40 years ago.

THE WORDSMOON TREES” might conjure up a romantic image, but research actually reveals a scientific definition. These mythical trees do exist, and they’re all over Humboldt State’s campus. Redwoods in various locations at HSU germinated from seeds that orbited the moon almost 40 years ago.

On Jan. 31, 1971, NASA launched the Apollo 14 lunar module and the ship’s three astronauts were allocated space for personal items. Stuart Roosa, a former smokejumper for the U.S. Forest Service, brought some 500 seeds from five tree species, including redwoods. Alan Shepard famously brought along three golf balls and a makeshift club to later tee off on the surface of the moon.

Five days later Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the moon while Roosa remained in orbit in the command module. Roosa and his canister of seeds circled the moon 34 times as Shepard and Mitchell left their footprints in the lunar dust.

When the expedition returned, scientists from the U.S. Forest Service and NASA were eager to test the germination of these seeds and record the effects of space travel on the plants, which had not been widely studied.

In the end, almost all the seeds germinated successfully. Some were planted with their earth-bound counterparts as controls (after over 20 years there turns out to be no discernible difference).

Some of the seedlings arrived at HSU around 1976, according to retired HSU forestry Professor Bill Sise. “There were hundreds of them just sitting in our greenhouse, and none of us knew what they were,” he says. To this day, it’s hard to know exactly which trees orbited the moon, as they’re growing alongside traditional redwoods. But some of their locations have been documented, and they can be found alongside the Theatre Arts building, behind Plant Operations, near CCAT and next to the Forestry and Natural Resources buildings.

Sise reminisced about a plaque that used to mark the three trees next to the Theatre Arts building. “We did have a plaque so that people would know where some of the moon trees were located, but kids living in the dorms kept stealing it and hanging it like a prize in their rooms.”

The Apollo 14 Lunar Module carried the seeds of some of the redwoods now growing on campus.
Photo courtesy of NASA.