How NASA Misplaced a Whole Forest of Moon Trees

Remember the trees grown around the U.S. from seeds that made it to the Moon? No? Well, there’s a reason for that.

William Fischer, Jr. via NASA

The story of Apollo 14 pilot Stuart Roosa’s pocketful of seeds might seem quaint if it weren’t so absurd. It all starts in 1971, as Roosa flies to the Moon with a small forest of seeds in his pocket. Once back on Earth, many of Roosa’s “Moon trees” become the centerpieces of celebrations all over the U.S. The trees grow, flourish, and soon interest wanes. Within a few years, NASA and the U.S. Forest Service loses track of the bulk of the trees — until a kid asked their teacher about a “Moon Tree” plaque. The search for all the trees is still on today.

As NASA is getting ready to plant a new generation of Moon trees from the Artemis I mission, the story of the advent and rediscovery of the trees is worth revisiting — even though history won’t likely repeat itself. This time, the agency promises, the location of the Moon trees will be well documented.

Taking a Forest to the Moon

Years before Roosa flew around the Moon, he parachuted onto the front lines of remote wildfires as a smokejumper in the U.S. Forest Service. The 500 seeds, carefully packed in plastic bags in his personal item kit on Apollo 14, were Roosa’s way of honoring his old colleagues and their mission — and a suggestion from then-Forest Service chief Edward Cliff.

Researchers at the Forest Services wanted to see how well the Douglas firs, loblolly pines, redwoods, sequoias, and sycamores would grow after exposure to microgravity and a trip through cislunar space. That turned out to be an easy question to answer: back on Earth, Roosa’s spacefaring seeds germinated and grew just the same as ones that had never left the planet.

With that burning question resolved, the Forest Service decided that communities around the country could plant “Moon tree” saplings as part of the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations, marking the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. They passed the hundreds of saplings out to forestry services in 40 states and at least four other countries.

“At that time, it was just this really cool thing that was important to Stuart Roosa, because he had that connection to the Forest Service as a prior smokejumper,” says McCarthy. “There was not necessarily tracking set up initially to identify where those seedlings would go.”

So once the Moon trees went to their new homes, they dropped off the Forest Service's radar — and they'd never really been on NASA's radar to begin with. It turns out that it’s not actually that hard to lose 500 trees, especially when they’re very small.

It took more than 20 years to find them again.

Roosa had been a smokejumper before becoming a test pilot and then an astronaut.


Resdicovering the Moon Trees

It all started with a third grader in Indiana. Her teacher, Joan Goble, had recently assigned the class a project on trees in their community, and the girl remembered that one particular tree at her local Girl Scout camp had a sign declaring it a “Moon Tree.” The girl didn’t know what a Moon Tree was, but it sounded interesting, so she asked her teacher.

Mrs. Goble didn’t know what a Moon Tree was, either, but she knew who might: NASA. She found an email address for Dave Williams in the NASA Space Science Data Center (now the NASA Data Archive, where Williams still works) at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Williams is a planetary scientist, and his job at NASA is to manage the archive of planetary and lunar science data brought back by decades of missions, including the Apollo flights. Goble found his name on a page about some of the Apollo data — but it turned out Williams also didn’t know what a Moon Tree was, and neither did any of the colleagues he talked to at Goddard. Even the NASA History Office only managed to find a few newspaper clippings from the 1970s. But that was enough for Williams, who began to piece together the broad strokes of the story.

“The thing just kind of grew pretty much on its own.”

“I answered my question, but I thought this was really a cool story, and no one knew about it,” says Williams. He added a page to NASA’s sprawling labyrinth of a website, telling the story of the Moon trees and listing the six he’d managed to track down. “I had no idea what was really out there,” says Williams. But he was about to find out.

At the bottom of the page, Williams listed his email with a short message asking people to tell him if they knew about a Moon tree in their community. Messages started arriving, from observant citizens, Forest Service employees, and even some of the people who had been involved with the Moon tree project in the 1970s.

“The thing just kind of grew pretty much on its own,” says Williams.

Today, the database includes 118 trees. They’ve turned up in exactly the sorts of places you’d expect: outside state capitols and county courthouses, at NASA centers and on military bases, in arboretums and botanical gardens, on college campuses and outside elementary schools, and outside museums. But some have also turned up in unexpected places: Helen Keller’s birthplace, amusement parks, outside a police department, and in a few private yards.

Williams even found one in his backyard at Goddard Space Flight Center. "I got a phone call one day asking, 'Why don't you have the Goddard tree on your list?' So you see why I'm not running a detective agency," says Williams.

The tree turned out to be tucked into a far corner of the Goddard Visitors' Center grounds, far from the paths and the building's entrance — easy to miss for an employee who didn't wander around the center on a regular basis.

There’s also a second-generation Moon tree in Williams’ literal backyard which is the offspring of one of the original trees, courtesy of a Forest Service employee. "They had a second generation Moon tree planting at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.," says Williams. "I got invited to that, and at the end, they gave me a generation seedling. I planted it out in my backyard, and it's a little Sycamore growing in my backyard."

This plaque sits next to the Moon tree in front of the Sebastian County Courthouse in Ft. Smith, Arkansas — but some of the Moon trees weren’t so lucky.

William Fischer, Jr. via NASA

How NASA Lost a Forest

Even with NASA preparing to hand out the first round of saplings from the Artemis I flight to carefully-chosen schools, museums, and arboretums around the country, some of the original Moon trees remain unaccounted for. Some have been lost forever; trees that didn’t survive long enough to be planted, or died soon after planting, just disappeared from history. But others are still out there somewhere, waiting to be noticed.

Williams speculates that many of the Moon tree seedlings were planted without identification, in communities that planned to install plaques later — and never got around to it.

“It kind of doesn't get done, so the trees get planted without a plaque, and it's like, ‘Well, that was just a tree.’ So I think that's how a lot of them got lost,” Williams says.

NASA plans to keep better track of its roughly 800 Artemis Moon trees.

Other supposed Moon trees may not be the real thing at all. At planting time, some of the Moon tree saplings were still so small that in some communities there were worries about the trees getting stolen or not surviving the winter. So some places used decoy trees, replacing them with the actual Moon trees. Their fears were, in at least one case, well-founded.

In Holliston, Massachusetts, the city planted a stand-in tree in front of the police station, whisking the real Moon tree away to the shelter of a greenhouse. A few weeks later, some local kids swiped the stand-in tree from right in front of the police station. (Today, the real Moon tree stands in place, protected by a chain-link fence.) But other stand-ins may not have been replaced.

“I can't be specific because I can't remember exactly, but I feel like there were some cases where people said, oh, you know that's definitely not a Moon tree,” says Williams. “There's one, I don't remember which one it was, where they planted a stand-in; the other tree died, and they just left a stand-in there.”

A Moon tree’s authenticity can technically be settled with a DNA test. All the Moon trees came from particular regions and with that information in hand, you can compare them and potentially find an impostor. But the testing is expensive, and Williams says most of the Moon trees are probably real. Probably.

This tree standing at the Forestry Sciences Lab in West Virginia is not actually a Moon tree. Williams’ database notes, “Unfortunately the tree was reported as having been accidentally mowed down shortly after the planting, and a sycamore-maple tree was planted in its place. That tree remains there to this day.”


The Next Generation

McCarthy says NASA plans to keep better track of its roughly 800 Artemis Moon trees.

This time around, the seeds flew on Artemis I as an official mission payload, not tucked into an astronaut’s pocket. They’ve been carefully monitored and tended by the Forest Service, since their return to Earth in December 2022. And as the Artemis Moon tree saplings travel to their new homes, NASA will be keeping detailed records.

“We’ll know where they are, so we won't need to go back in the future and do retroactive crowdsourcing,” says McCarthy.

That process started with reviewing more than 1300 applications for an Artemis Moon tree to make sure that the recipients could properly care for the tree and had a plan to use it in educational programs. NASA and the Forest Service want the trees to teach students about both spaceflight and protecting the environment here on Earth, according to McCarthy.

The first approximately 200 seeds have made their way to schools, museums, parks, and botanical gardens around the contiguous 48 states (the five species that flew on Artemis I weren’t suited to the climates of Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, and Puerto Rico, but McCarthy says that could change on later Artemis flights) for the spring planting season. In the fall, another round of saplings – from trees that need to be planted as the weather is shifting toward winter, like Douglas firs, sequoias, sycamores, and redwoods – will be shipped out. Two more rounds of saplings will travel to their new homes in 2025, once they’re deemed ready for planting by their Forest Service caretakers.

And not only will NASA remember where its new Moon trees are, it’ll know how they’re faring.

“A lot of our recipient schools are looking at long term tracking,” says McCarthy. “We'll have a platform, and we're inviting them to contribute measurements over time.

Like nearly everything else about Artemis, the new generation of Moon trees are part of an effort by NASA to help recapture some of the public excitement of the original Apollo missions. And some of the Artemis Moon trees will find themselves growing alongside, or just down the block from, the venerable old trees that once flew in Stuart Roosa’s pocket on Apollo 14.

At the Cradle of Forestry, a park and museum in North Carolina, an Artemis 14 seedling will grow next to a sycamore that flew on Apollo 14.

“And we do have a number of schools where, either in their communities or nearby, they now will have an Apollo and an Artemis-era Moon tree, which is super exciting,” says McCarthy. NASA and the Forest Service are in the process of developing an app for locating Moon trees and learning more about their species and locations.

Meanwhile, the offspring of the original Moon trees, like the sycamore growing in Williams’ backyard, are also growing around the country and overseas — planted by Roosa’s daughter, Rosemary Roosa, through her nonprofit organization called the Moon Tree Foundation.

It’s an impressive legacy for a pocketful of seeds.

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