A Moon-circling Sequoia puts down roots in San Dimas
by Monique Millan
photography by Sarah Golden
Three astronauts, two golf balls and about 500 tree seeds from five different species created the memorable third American mission to the Moon. The Jan. 31, 1971, Apollo 14 mission is important because of the data gathered during the journey, and the experiments that were brought to fruition on land. A few of the objectives included taking high resolution photography, gathering samples of the lunar surface, and deployment of scientific instruments and experiments. However, one experiment was less galactic than the others. Stuart Roosa, a former U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper—a wild land firefighter—was chosen to ride along on the lunar adventure. He brought hundreds of tree seeds to circle the Moon, and now one of those seeds has apparently grown to maturity 42 years later on the front lawn of the U.S. Forest Service San Dimas Technology and Development Center at 444 E. Bonita Ave.
History of the mission
Riding along with Roosa on the Apollo 14 mission were Commander Alan B. Shepard and Lunar Module Pilot Edgar D. Mitchell. Roosa stayed in low Moon orbit for 34 revolutions with the seeds in his personal kit while Shepard and Mitchell landed on the moon Feb. 2, 1971. Shepard is remembered for hitting two golf balls on the Moon in front of a live television audience. The mission’s other lasting fame, while not as visually iconic as Shepard’s “miles and miles” long shot, were the tree seeds, from which about 425 successfully sprouted into seedlings, many of which now reside in locations throughout the United States. A loblolly pine was planted at the White House. Internationally, trees were planted in Brazil, Switzerland and presented to the Emperor of Japan.
Ed Cliff, then chief of the Forest Service, proposed that Roosa take tree seeds in his personal kit into the gravity free environment of the cramped space ship as it orbited the moon. Stan Krugman, the U.S. Forest Service’s staff director for forest genetics research in 1971, picked the species. “The scientists wanted to find out what would happen to these seeds if they took a ride to the Moon. Would they sprout? Would the trees look normal? It was part science, part publicity stunt,” says Krugman in NASA Science News, adding, “We also wanted to give them away as part of the Bicentennial celebration in 1976.”
The seeds were divided into five separate species: loblolly pine, sycamore, sweetgum, redwood and Douglas fir. “I picked redwoods because they were well-known, and the others because they would grow well in many parts of the United States,” says Krugman, in NASA Science News.
To everyone’s disappointment, upon the astronauts’ return to earth, the seeds burst out of their canisters during vacuum atmosphere decontamination procedures, mixing up the different species and making them presumably unviable. However, much to the scientists’ surprise, the seeds were not impacted from the shock of space or the canister disruption. Under the care of the Forest Service, a high percentage germinated and produced seedlings. As a commemoration to the Apollo 14 mission, a majority of the fledgling trees were planted in the United States. Among the significant planting locations, San Dimas, Calif., was one. “The seeds were sprouted and raised, with many distributed all over the country. A tree was sent here [San Dimas] because it’s a forest service center so it would be a good match,“ says John Fehr, a laboratory representative at the San Dimas Technology Development Center.
Not all of the seeds were tracked. An on-going search is taking place, coordinated by Dave Williams, planetary curation scientist, National Space Science. Williams, a physician and former Space Shuttle astronaut, has a web site on the main NASA web site for this tracking purpose.
Recently, the San Dimas sequoia tree has caused some confusion. According to Williams, no Sequoiadendron giganteum seeds were taken to the moon on Apollo 14. Instead, Roosa’s manifest said he carried coast redwood seeds (Sequoia sempervirens). September 2013, Williams sent Erica Botkin, his volunteer Moon tree scout, to San Dimas to research the discrepancy. She could not find a coast redwood on site. “So there is a mystery here, which would make a great story if we could solve it,” he says. Perhaps the issue could be explained because of a labeling error. While Roosa’s manifest did not include Sequoiadendron giganteum seeds, the tree planted in San Dimas is definitely that species. Dedication signage in 1977 and an on-site plaque correctly identify the tree as a Sequoiadendron giganteum. A labeling mistake could have happened since coast redwood trees are also members of the sequoia family. Skeptics give the Forest Service credit for not making that type of labeling error. Nevertheless, pictures online show NASA representatives planting the 15.25 inch tall Sequoiadendron giganteum in front of the S.D.T.D. Center in a public ceremony March 29, 1977. Pictures capture poster signage near the speaker’s platform, making it seem unlikely that the tree was fraudulently placed there. The S.D.T.D. Center continues as a satellite office of the USDA Forest Service, and then, as now, is an obvious candidate for the planting site for a Moon-circling tree. Indeed, San Dimas is listed in the official NASA Moon Tree web site; albeit, the listed tree is called “Redwood.” So like so many things that come from space, the San Dimas tree holds its own conspiracy theory.
Today, the San Dimas sequoia has grown to more than 70 feet in height and is still growing. “The super giganteum trees are so uncommon because they’re so tall and stately. They take a long time to grow but do surprisingly well,“ says John Garrison, owner of Garrison Foothill Nursery in Upland. He says that the giganteum trees can grow to be about 325 feet tall and outgrow their locations over the span of a few thousand years. “If it gets adequate water and fertilizer, it can grow beyond natural range,” adds Fehr.
Roosa worked on the Space Shuttle program until his retirement as an Air Force Colonel in 1976, just before the time of the planting of the San Dimas tree. Sadly, he died December 1994. But his trees continue to flourish, a living monument to Roosa, to the first visits to the Moon and, for San Dimas, a historical connection to the early space program.