Moon tree mystery unsolved, still funny
Moon trees were not NASA’s effort to put a forest on the Earth’s only natural satellite ... though some might think they could be the butt of a joke. After more than four decades, however, the trees grown from seeds that once orbited the moon — and control trees grown from seeds that never left Earth but came from the same seed lots — do offer a bit of humor. At least the ones in Central Louisiana do. Several years ago, Jim Guldin was head of the Palustris Experimental Station in the Kisatchie National Forest near Elmer, about 20 minutes southwest of Alexandria, where a Moon Tree and control tree were planted. An inquiry by local media led Guldin and now retired U.S. Forest Service scientist Jim Barnett to check on the largely ignored novelties. What they discovered was that the Moon Tree and the control tree appeared to be different species of pine. “I laughed,” Guldin said in a recent phone interview while thinking back when the difference was discovered. He is now the station silviculturist in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Stations, which extends from Virginia to Texas. “Well that didn’t work out like we planned,” he quipped with a hearty chuckle. It might be helpful to explain the Moon Tree’s origin first. The story starts in 1953 when Stuart Roosa became a smokejumper for the Forest Service. Roosa would later join the U.S. Air Force and later be selected to enter the NASA space program, eventually becoming an astronaut. He was selected to be on the crew of the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. Roosa was contacted by U.S. Forest Service Chief Ed Cliff, who knew him from his smokejumper days, writes Dr. David R. Williams, author/curator of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Cliff asked Roosa to carry a bag of about 500 seeds of five tree species: sycamore; sweetgum; redwood; Douglas fir; and loblolly pine. “The seeds were classified and sorted, and control seeds were kept on Earth for later comparison,” according to The Moon Trees web page.
The former smokejumper carried the seeds in his personal kit. They orbited the moon 34 times with Roosa piloting the command module Kitty Hawk during the February 1971 mission. While he was in the decontamination process, however, the seed cannisters burst “and the seeds got mixed together and were presumed to be no longer viable.” Much to the surprise of the Forest Service, roughly 450 of the seeds were able to be grown into seedlings at the USFS stations in Gulfport, Mississippi, and Placerville, California. Many were planted around the country in 1975 and 1976 as part of the United States bicentennial. Moon Trees also were given to other countries, such as Brazil, Switzerland and Japan. Williams, who is acting head of the national Space Science Data Center, got involved with Moon Trees in 1996 when he received an email from a third-grade teacher in Indiana. A sycamore at nearby Koch Girl Scout Camp in Cannelton, Indiana, had a marker by it indicating it was a Moon Tree. “I really didn’t know anything about (the Moon Trees),” Williams said. “It’s not my job.” However, Williams’ facility handles NASA’s lunar science and all data from the Apollo missions, he said. When a teacher inquired, the planetary scientist couldn’t help but seek to learn what this Moon Tree stuff was all about. So he began his research, first discovering moon trees are not a hoax. Williams created “The Moon Trees” web page and was soon getting emails about Moon Trees from people all over the United States. Although many places around the country received moon trees, not every one of them got a control tree, supposedly grown from seeds that were from the same tree as the seeds that orbited the moon. Central Louisiana was one of the places that did receive a Moon Tree — a loblolly pine seedling — and a “supposed” loblolly control tree seedling ... or was it? Barnett said the seedlings had been planted in April 1976 and largely ignored, left even without a marker. It was said that the Moon Tree was on the right, the control tree on the left when planted. Before the species difference was realized, Barnett said some people who learned about the two trees thought it was high time for the Moon Tree be identified as such. So decades after it was planted, folks with Kisatchie National Forest Calcasieu Ranger District had a sign made and it was put up in front of the tree “on the right.” Here’s where the story gets a bit peculiar. All these many years, the Moon Tree marker was placed in front of “the tree on the right” when looking into the property from the road. The weird thing was the tree behind the sign where originally placed is not a loblolly pine tree. By 2011, the research station area had become overgrown. Barnett and Guldin were at the station and discovered hanging on the Moon Tree sign were pine cones that did not appear to be from a loblolly but rather a shortleaf pine tree. Had the effects of outer space changed the appearance or even species of the tree? “Who knows what happens in outer space,” a light-hearted Guldin said. Williams said there have been no reports of Moon Trees changing in appearance from the species they started out to be. The mix-up with the sign was discovered later. When someone identified the moon tree in Elmer as “the one of the right,” that person was standing inside the property looking toward the road. That tree is easily identified as a loblolly pine. The sign had been placed in front of the tree on the right looking from the road. Although Barnett and Guldin said the sign should be moved, it wasn’t until recently when an inquiry about the Moon Tree was made. “We’re confident that we have properly identified the tree grown from the seeds that went to the moon,” Barnett said with a chuckle. So, what does one make of the control tree that is a shortleaf pine? “We always assumed it was a mix-up, but the humorous situation led us to speculate,” Barnett guffawed. “This is what we’d call an anecdotal observation,” Guldin laughed. Williams admits that the seedling “project” really wasn’t a tightly controlled scientific experiment. Decades later, many consider it was done more for publicity as the public interest in moon exploration waned. Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell even told news organizations years after his mission “people were getting bored” with the moon missions. Guldin, however, said that although the results of the experiment weren’t what was expected, the project is a good one. “It’s a wonderful piece of our history and a great testament to Roosa who had an interest in forestry,” he said. The Moon Tree in Elmer is the last of three Moon Trees planted in Louisiana. Two were planted in New Orleans and both were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. As to the control tree being a different species of pine, mixing up the seedlings before being sent to Louisiana, as suggested by the Forest Service, is the most logical answer. Guldin quipped that a genetic change caused by radiation in outer space, for example, is the most difficult explanation for a scientist to accept. And although the difference in species is easy to see now, Guldin said it is possible to get seedlings of loblolly and shortleaf pines mixed up when they are less than a year old. The moon tree and control tree being different species remains a mystery. Is it a human error or an extraterrestrial effect? Despite the logic, an answer might best be decided by one’s imagination.