What’s the story behind the pyramid in that San Luis Obispo cemetery? Why did the roosters of Arroyo Grande settle there? That’s what’s we’re exploring.
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If you should find yourself walking through San Luis Obispo’s Mission Plaza, take a moment to spot and 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 one coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) took before being planted near the northern bank of San Luis Obispo Creek in time for the 1976 bicentennial celebration — 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, like all other astronauts he was allowed to bring a personal kit. Roosa, who worked as a U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper prior to joining NASA, opted to bring along between 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.
When the seeds, and the Apollo 14 crew, came back down to Earth, Roosa’s seeds were taken by the Forest Service for germination.
As the seeds sprouted into saplings, their timing couldn’t be better. America was about to mark an important anniversary.
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 SLO County, there were parades, pageants and other festivities. The SLO Tribune — then called The Telegram-Tribune — ran a splashy full-page replica of the Founding Fathers’ declaration.
With moon missions being only slightly less patriotic than baseball and apple pie, it seems only natural cities across America, including SLO, would want to record the historic anniversary by planting one of Roosa’s so-called “Moon Trees.”
Between 1975 and 1976, dozens of saplings were given out; one was planted at the White House, another was presented to the Emperor of Japan. Most, though, went to cities across the country. In California, that included Arcata, Berkeley, El Dorado Hills, Lockeford, Monterey, Sacramento, San Dimas and, of course, San Luis Obispo, according to Dave Williams, NASA planetary curation scientist 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 is astonishingly little official record on them.
Though 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, asking about them after her class discovered one.
“And I started putting the story together,” he said.
Williams put up a website, which details the history of the “Moon Trees” and also listed several of the known ones. Sadly, some of the trees have died in the 40-plus years since they were planted; that includes the loblolly pine planted on the White House lawn.
Williams also included his contact information, and asked his website’s visitors to send him any information they had on the whereabouts of other “Moon Trees.”
The emails started coming in, “and I started adding more and more to the page,” Williams said.
He said he was amazed to learn from one email that there was even a “Moon Tree” planted outside the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.
While the “Moon Tree” in San Luis Obispo was first reported to Williams in 2002, he and his wife, Nancy Williams, actually visited the tree when they came to SLO in 2016.
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 this project nearly two decades ago.
As for San Luis Obispo’s “Moon Tree,” it’s located in Mission Plaza, “just upstream from the Broad Street Bridge,” according to Williams’ site. For those seeking precise coordinates, that’s 35 deg 16.792 min N, 120 deg 39.876 min W.
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.