In communities all across the U.S., travelers that went to the moon and back with the Apollo 14 mission are living out their quiet lives. The whereabouts of more than 50 are known. Many, now aging, reside in prime retirement locales: Florida, Arizona and California. A few are in the Washington, D.C., area. Hundreds more are out there or at least, they were. And Dave Williams of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., wants to find them before it's too late. The voyagers in question are not astronauts. They're "moon trees" redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir, and sweetgum trees sprouted from seeds that astronaut Stuart Roosa took to the moon and back 40 years ago.
"Hundreds of moon trees were distributed as seedlings," says Williams, "but we don't have systematic records showing where they all went." And though some of the trees are long-lived species expected to live hundreds or thousands of years, others have started to succumb to the pressures of old age, severe weather and disease. At least a dozen have died, including the loblolly pine at the White House and a New Orleans pine that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and later removed. To capture the vanishing historical record, Williams, a curator at the National Space Science Data Center, has been tracking down the trees, dead or alive.
His sleuthing started in 1996, prompted by an email from a third-grade teacher, Joan Goble, asking about a tree at the Camp Koch Girl Scout Camp in Cannelton, Ind. A simple sign nearby read "moon tree." "At the time, I had never heard of moon trees," Williams says. "The sign had a few clues, so I sent a message to the NASA history office and found more bits and pieces on the web. Then I got in touch with Stan Krugman and got more of the story." Krugman had been the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service's staff director for forest genetics research in 1971. He had given the seeds to Roosa, who stowed them in his personal gear for the Apollo 14 mission. The seeds were symbolic for Roosa because he had fought wildfires as a smoke jumper before becoming an Air Force test pilot and then an astronaut.