A tree in SLO County orbited the moon — yes, really

San Luis Obispo has one of only about 80 known “moon trees,” Coast Redwood or Sequoia Sempervirens planted from seeds taken up on the Apollo 14 lunar mission. It is near San Luis Creek near the Murray Adobe.
David Middlecamp
San Luis Obispo has one of only about 80 known “moon trees,” Coast Redwood or Sequoia Sempervirens planted from seeds taken up on the Apollo 14 lunar mission. It is near San Luis Creek near the Murray Adobe. David Middlecamp 7-25-2018 dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

If you find yourself walking through Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo, take a moment to admire a certain coast redwood just upstream from the Broad Street Bridge. After all, it traveled more than 477,800 miles to get here.

That’s the distance it takes to travel to the moon and back again.

And that’s the route that tree took before being planted near the northern bank of San Luis Obispo Creek in 1976, just in time for the United States’ bicentennial celebration. It’s one of hundreds of so-called “Moon Trees” believed to have been planted nationwide.

Wait. Moon Trees?

Yes, Moon Trees

When astronaut Stuart Roosa was selected for the Apollo 14 mission, he decided to carry something special in his personal kit.

Roosa, who worked as a U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper prior to joining NASA, opted to bring along hundreds of seeds — specifically, seeds for loblolly pine, sycamore, sweetgum, Douglas fir and coast redwood trees.

According to NASA, the seeds were on board the Kitty Hawk command module, which Roosa piloted, as it orbited the moon as part of the Apollo 14 mission in early 1971.

After the Apollo 14 crew returned to Earth, so did Roosa’s seeds. The Forest Service undertook the task of germinating them.

The timing couldn’t be better. As the seeds sprouted into saplings, America neared an important anniversary.

Bicentennial celebration

July 4, 1976, marked the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and America was in a celebrating mood.

San Luis Obispo was no different.

All through San Luis Obispo County, there were parades, pageants and other festivities. The Tribune — then called The Telegram-Tribune — ran a splashy full-page replica of the Founding Fathers’ declaration.

With moon missions being about as patriotic as baseball and apple pie, it seems only natural that cities across the United States would want to record the historic anniversary by planting one of Roosa’s Moon Trees.

Between 1975 and 1976, dozens of saplings were distributed across the country. One was planted at the White House; another was presented to the emperor of Japan.

In California, cities that planted Moon Trees included Berkeley, Monterey, Sacramento, San Dimas and, of course, San Luis Obispo, according to Dave Williams, a NASA planetary curation scientist based in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Williams has taken on the challenging task of tracking down Moon Trees.

Missing Moon Trees

For all the pomp and circumstance and plaques that accompanied the planting of the Moon Trees, there are astonishingly few official records about them.

Although he works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Williams said tracking down the Moon Trees is more of a side project. They weren’t really on his radar until 2001, when he received an email from a third-grade teacher in Cannelton, Indiana, after her class discovered a Moon Tree.

“I started putting the story together,” Williams said.

Williams put up a website, which details the history of the Moon Trees and also lists several specimens and their locations. Sadly, some of the trees have died in the 40-plus years since they were planted, including the loblolly pine planted on the White House lawn.

As emails about the whereabouts of other Moon Trees have come in over the years, he’s added “more and more to the page,” Williams said.

He was amazed to learn from one email that there is a Moon Tree planted outside his office at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Massachusetts.

The trees are out there

Williams is still looking for more Moon Trees, though the rate of submissions have understandably slowed down since he started the project nearly two decades ago.

He learned about San Luis Obispo’s Moon Tree — a stately coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) — in 2002. He and his wife, Nancy Williams, visited the tree when they came to the Central Coast in 2016 and even snapped a couple of photos for his website.

The Moon Tree is located next to Mission Plaza, “just upstream from the Broad Street Bridge,” according to Williams’ site. For those seeking precise coordinates, that’s 35 degrees, 16.792 minutes North, 120 degrees, 39.876 minutes West.

While NASA isn’t likely to send anyone back to the moon anytime soon, Mars is another thing entirely. When NASA does send a manned mission to the Red Planet, Williams said he hopes they bring some seeds with them.

“The nice thing about seeds is, this is something you could bring into space that’s tiny,” he said.

For more information about Moon Trees, email Dave Williams at dave.williams@nasa.gov or visit https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/moon_tree.html.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler
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