In a gray plastic pot on a window sill somewhere in the south of England, Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) Trustee Richard O’Sullivan is attempting to grow a tree american sycamore.
As anyone who has successfully grown a plant from seed knows, this is an achievement in itself.
But this is no ordinary sycamore sapling.
Its origin dates back to a mission to the Moon in 1971, when the astronaut Stuart Roosa carried 500 tree seeds in his spaceshipApollo 14.
The trees that grew from these seeds became known as Moon Trees or “moon trees”.
Assuming the plant continues to grow, O’Sullivan’s will be a rare third-generation moontree.
“This seed comes from the harvest forty seeds from a mature second generation tree growing in a private garden in the middle of England,” explains O’Sullivan, who volunteered for the project as part of the SAN’s 200th anniversary celebrations.
“But only three of those seeds germinated and I have one of them, so I feel a bit of pressure.”
The idea of taking tree seeds to the Moon dates back to the beginning of Stuart Roosa’s career in the 1950s, when he was working for the US Forest Service.
Like many of the early astronauts, Roosa was a real-life action hero.
Before training as a military aircraft pilot, he took on what could be said to be a even more dangerous job, as a paratrooper in forest fires.
“The bushfire jumpers would parachute into the smoke, build a trench and do what they could to put out the fire before falling back to the nearest bushfire camp. It was quite a tough task,” says Roosa’s daughter, Rosemary.
“To my father he loved naturebut I also think he liked airplanes because he knew, as a child, that he wanted to be a pilot.”
After proving himself to be a skilled fighter pilot and later a skilled test pilot in the US Air Force, Roosa was selected as an astronaut in 1966.
His first spaceflight was as a command module pilot on Apollo 14.
This meant that would remain in orbit around the Moon in complete solitude, while his two colleagues descended to the lunar surface.
Roosa was chosen for the mission by his commander, Alan Shepard, who had been the first American in space.
“My father was an excellent man for aviation. He was just a really good driver, he had great instincts,” says Roosa.
“It was a bit controversial at the time because my father was the only astronaut selected for a prime crew who had never served another mission in a backup crew.”
“But Alan Shepard later said that because the command module pilot is the one in charge of taking astronauts to the Moon and bringing them back home, he wanted to make sure he got back to Earth!”
As Roosa began training for her mission, the Forest Service approached the astronaut to ask him if he would take some seeds to the Moon among his personal belongings.
He said that a Forest Service geneticist chose a selection of five species: Douglas fir, loblolly pine, redwood, sycamore, and sweetgum.
It would be easy to dismiss the project as just a publicity stunt, but it had its roots in science.
How would a trip around the Moon affect health, long-term viability and genetics of seeds?
This would be the first time seeds had been sent into deep space, a progression from previous experiments.
“We’ve been sending seeds into space since before NASA was founded,” says Emma Doughty, host of the Gardeners of the Galaxy podcast.
“When the United States captured German V2 rockets in the 1940s, they were seen to be sending seeds into space along with other types of organisms, such as insects, to test how the space environment and radiation affected these life forms”.
“We didn’t know anything about what would happen to life when it came out of the atmosphere or what would happen in microgravity,” he says.
“We needed to know if life could survive there up before we started shipping anything anyone cared about.”
On January 31, 1971, the Apollo 14 crew (Shepard, Roosa, and lunar lander pilot Ed Mitchell) blasted off from Cape Canaveral on their giant Saturn V rocket to the Moon.
After the apollo 13 near disasterNASA was under enormous political pressure to ensure that this mission ran smoothly.
But only after three hours of flight, something began to fail.
For launch, the lunar lander was encapsulated on top of the Saturn V, behind the module carrying the crew.
The work of Roosa was to separate the command module and the of servicerotate 180 degrees and dock with the lander.
The maneuver went as planned and Roosa perfectly aligned the probe on the tip of the command module with the hatch of the lander.
But when the two spaceships came together, the closing mechanism didn’t get hooked.
The crew began to think that they had to abort the mission.
It wasn’t until the sixth attempt, nearly two hours later, that the latches finally closed to achieve “full engagement.”
The rest of the mission was almost flawless.
Shepard, a legendary pilot, made the most precise landing on the Moon to date, and he and Mitchell set new records for duration and distance on the lunar surface.
During two voyages, the astronauts collected about 43 kg of rocks and soil.
Shepard even had time for a quick round of golf.
Meanwhile, Roosa (and the seeds) spent two days in orbit in the command module, maintaining spacecraft systems, conducting experiments, and taking photographs and observations of the lunar surface.
He became one of only six men to be completely alone in deep space.
On February 9, 1971, hethe crew from Apollo 14 returnedAron to Earth as heroes and the lunar landing program returned to normal.
Meanwhile, most of the seeds were returned to the Forest Service, although Roosa and Mitchell kept some.
But this is where the story starts to get a bit vague.
Despite the fact that it was supposedly a scientific experiment run by two respected US government organizations, no one at the time kept accurate records where exactly the seeds ended up from or where the moon trees that grew from them were planted.
“The Forest Service started dispersing them, mainly during the United States bicentennial in 1976, and so they gave away”says Rosemary Roosa.
“When I come across the original moon trees, many of them are planted in state capitals, botanical gardens and parks, but there is no formal documentation that I know of,” he adds.
Some seeds were also shipped abroad, though exactly where is unclear.
It is known that there three trees in Brazil, possibly one in France and 12-15 first-generation moon trees are said to have been planted in the UK.
The RAS has spent the last year trying to locate them, without success.
“The last moon tree I know of was planted by my father and I in Austin, Texas, in the late 1970s,” says Roosa.
The tree was planted in the house in which he grew up.
“I was in the backyard and my dad said, ‘Hey, this is the last seed Moon TreeI have, let’s plant it and see what happens’. He was an American sycamore. I recently spoke with the owner of the house and it continues to grow.”
Stuart Roosa passed away in 1994 and Rosemary created the Moon Tree Foundation to keep his legacy alive.
NASA, through the efforts of planetary scientist Dave Williams, has also been trying to keep track of the trees and has released a list of more than 60 first-generation plants that are still alive.
Most seem to be in the United States, although it seems that the seeds sent to Brazil they are still thriving.
Since Apollo 14 there have been dozens of similar, though scientifically more rigorous, experiments involving the sending seeds and plants into space.
Today, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) regularly eat a salad grown on board.
In 2016, 2kg of rocket seeds were sent to the ISS with British astronaut Tim Peake.
The SAN investigation into the seeds noted that “the results showed that, although arugula seeds grew more slowly and were more sensitive to agingThey were still viable.
Future long-term exploration of the Moon and Mars depends on power grow fresh food in deep space.
The fact that so many moon trees thrive and produce viable offspring suggests that the seeds Roosa carried on Apollo 14 suffered few ill effects.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, and less than half of the Apollo astronauts are still alive.
But his legacy lives on in the trees too.
“It was amazing to be in charge of that task,” says Doughty.
“I think that’s the legacy of the moon trees: to get people interested in space. If they can see something that has been in space growing in their local park, it will make the project real for people.”
And while NASA prepares to return to the Moon and eventually establish a moon base, Rosemary Roosa has an ambitious plan.
“I want to send lunar tree seeds to the Moon and plant them there; then they would definitely be Moon Trees“.
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