NASA’s Apollo 14 performed the third crewed mission to the moon fifty years ago. The spacecraft had an odd cargo on board when it landed in the Pacific Ocean on February 9, 1971: around 500 tree seeds.
The seeds — loblolly pine, sycamore, sweetgum, redwood, and Douglas fir — had been sealed in small plastic pouches held in a metal canister in Stuart Roosa’s luggage, one of the three NASA astronauts on the mission and a former US Forest Service parachute firefighter. They were part of a study to see how seeds responded to the vacuum of space.
The seeds were germinated by the Forest Service upon their return to Earth. According to NASA, the resulting seedlings became known as “Moon Trees” and were planted all over the United States and the world. There was no organized attempt to track them down, but NASA has since located about 60 of them, mostly in the United States but also in Brazil, Japan, and Switzerland.
Any of these seeds or seedlings may have ended up in the United Kingdom, according to Steve Miller, vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society and a professor at University College London. He, like the UK Space Agency, is curious about what happened to them.
His search started when he inquired on the famous BBC radio show “Gardener’s Question Time” about a suitable horticultural way to commemorate the Royal Astronomical Society’s bicentenary, which will be celebrated in 2020.
Christine Walkden, a panellist and a gardener, suggested that he look for trees grown from moon seeds that she thought were planted in the UK and take a cutting from one of them. However, there is no proof that they live in the United Kingdom.
Miller claims that two possible recipients, London’s Kew Gardens and the arboretum at Jodrell Bank, the UK’s main space observatory, have no records of the seeds that allegedly arrived in the UK. He’s now looking for some leads from the media.
Many of the seeds were distributed to state forestry organizations in the United States in 1975 and 1976 to be planted as part of the country’s bicentennial celebrations. Loblolly pine was planted at the White House, according to NASA. Trees have also been planted in Philadelphia’s Washington Square, at Valley Forge’s International Forest of Friendship, and various universities and NASA centres.
Miller was able to locate a “half-moon tree” that was formed from a cutting taken from a moon tree that had been planted in the United States. The half-moon tree can be found in a private garden in the Chiltern Hills, north of London, in the village of Flamstead. For its bicentennial, the RAS has been promised a cutting from that tree.
“We’re incredibly grateful for that,” Miller said. “But we still want to know if any Apollo 14 seeds did come to the UK, and — if so — just what happened to them?”
The tree seeds planted on the Apollo 14 mission were not part of a scientific study. The Apollo astronauts were only able to carry a few personal belongings to the moon. Alan Shepard, one of the astronauts, carried golf balls and became the first person to golf on the moon.
His late crewmate, Roosa, wanted to bring something to honour American forests, as a nod to his previous career as a smokejumper, a person who parachutes into remote wilderness areas to put out wildfires.
Scientists were eager to research the seeds after that since few studies had previously measured the effects of space on botanical specimens. The Forest Service looked at the seeds’ genetic makeup to see if they can sprout and develop normally. (They did.)
Other seeds have since made the trip into space and sprouted successfully. Salad seeds weighing 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) spent six months onboard the International Space Station in 2015 and were successfully planted back on Earth, though they developed at a slower rate than those that did not leave Earth.
Besides, the UK is home to seven apple trees that were sent to the International Space Station on a flight. The seeds from the tree that inspired Isaac Newton to discover gravity were cultivated by the UK Space Agency.
“Sending seeds to space helps us understand the effect of the unique environment on seeds’ biological makeup. Understanding the effects of space on ungerminated seeds will be vital for future space missions, including when we look to sustain human life beyond Earth,” said Libby Jackson, Human Exploration Manager at the UK Space Agency, in a statement.
“Space has a wonderful way of inspiring people. We saw that excitement when space saplings grown from the seeds from Newton’s apple tree were planted on our soil. I’ll be interested in discovering if any of the Moon seeds came to the UK and what has become of them.”