By Finn J.D. John • Offbeat Oregon • 

NASA's 'Moon Trees' have roots in Oregon

F.J.D. John photo Peavy Hall, on the Oregon State University campus, with a Moon Tree towering above.
F.J.D. John photo
Peavy Hall, on the Oregon State University campus, with a Moon Tree towering above.
F.J.D. John photo The plaque placed at the foot of the tree denotes its special status.
F.J.D. John photo
The plaque placed at the foot of the tree denotes its special status.
Stuart Roosa

Stuart Roosa

Sometime in the late 1990s, Scott Leavengood of Oregon State University’s Forestry Extension Service got a strange phone call from Michael Simons of Phoenix, Ariz.

“I heard there was a Moon Tree planted at the College of Forestry,” Simons said. “Is it still there? Can I get cuttings from it?”

Leavengood had no idea what he was talking about. Moon Tree? What was that?

The Moon Tree story starts with a young Forest Service employee named Stuart Roosa. Roosa was a “smokejumper” — a wildland firefighter deployed by parachute like an airborne Ranger. Throughout a tough 1953 fire season, he parachuted behind the fire lines in Oregon’s back country, helping put out forest fires.

Eighteen years later, he was in a different career. He had become a U.S. Air Force officer, test pilot and astronaut. And he’d been picked for the crew of Apollo 14, the third mission to the moon, scheduled for launch in 1971.

Although he was living every little boy’s dream, he remembered fondly his summer in the backcountry of the Beaver State, and his colleagues in the U.S. Forest Service. And now, he thought, was his opportunity to do them a well-deserved favor.

“Each Apollo astronaut was allowed to take a small number of personal items to the moon,” said Lt. Col. Jack Roosa, Stuart Roosa’s son, in an interview with NASA Science News. “My father chose trees. It was his way of paying tribute to the U.S. Forest Service.”

Trees, that is, in the form of seeds. Roosa planned to fill a container with more than 400 seeds from five different kinds of trees: Redwood, Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Douglas Fir and Sweetgum. He’d take them to the moon, return them to Earth, and see if they would still grow, and how well.

The plan was a little like a publicity stunt, but it was also a scientific experiment. The Forest Service scientists — who, of course, loved Roosa’s idea and were eager to help in any way — wanted to see what would happen to seeds that had been subjected to the vacuum and zero gravity of outer space. Would they sprout?

There was only one way to find out — send them on a journey of roughly 1 million miles — to the moon and back again.

The scientists provided Roosa with clean tree seeds from Forest Service genetics institutions. Each seed’s parents were known, so that if one grew markedly different from its ancestors, it would be noticed. The seeds were packed in a metal cylinder 6 inches long and 3 inches in diameter, and on Jan. 31, 1971, they blasted into space.

Roosa was the command-module pilot, so he didn’t actually get to walk on the moon; he orbited above while fellow astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell explored the surface, collecting rocks and whacking the golf balls Shepard had brought with him.

Upon their return, there was a little mishap — the cylinder, exposed to a vacuum, exploded and scattered the seeds all over the place. Forest Service staff director Stan Krugman spent hours scrounging the seeds up and sorting them by species, whereupon they were sent off to Forest Service labs to see if they would germinate.

Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, they did.

By 1975, the year before the Bicentennial celebration, the Forest Service had hundreds of “Moon Trees.” And suddenly everyone wanted one.

It seemed like every member of Congress wanted one to plant in his or her home state. One went to the emperor of Japan. The mayor of New Orleans, a man named Moon Landrieu, requested a Moon Tree or two for obvious reasons. They were so popular that Forest Service professionals had to root cuttings of the original trees — not an easy thing to do with a conifer — to meet the demand.

There followed a busy year of planting and celebrating Bicentennial Moon Trees — followed immediately, for most of them, by three decades of forgetting they existed.

In Oregon, the trees were not forgotten. A plaque marked the location of the Moon Tree on the state Capitol grounds in Salem, and another one on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene was remembered in 1987, when it was carefully moved to make way for the construction of Willamette Hall. Today, it stands at the corner of the lawn behind the Erb Memorial Union, close to the Carson dormitory building.

According to NASA, there are four other Moon Trees in Oregon, for a total of six: one at the VA hospital in Roseburg, two at a private residence in Salem and the one at Oregon State University.

(The ones at a private residence in Salem, by the way, are an interesting enigma. Their date of planting is given as 1973, two full years before any other Moon Trees were planted anywhere in the country. Other than the reference on the NASA website, I haven’t been able to find any more information about them. If you happen to know where they are and how they came to be planted, I would love to hear from you.)

At Oregon State, the resident Moon Tree wasn’t forgotten, but it also wasn’t widely known about, which is why Leavengood — an extension agent specializing in forestry — had never heard of it until Michael Simon’s phone call.

And it was the tree at OSU that Simon wanted a cutting from — despite the fact that several other Moon Trees were much closer to his home. He explained to Leavengood that he was trying to get his daughter interested in science and thought trying to sprout a Moon Tree would be a great father-daughter project.

Leavengood made a few inquiries, and soon learned that the 40-foot fir tree in front of Peavy Hall — which he’d walked past hundreds of times on campus — was, in fact, a Moon Tree.

Leavengood took cuttings from its branches and pine cones from its base, and sent them off to Simon — who tried valiantly to get the cuttings to root, but failed (this is extremely difficult to do with a Douglas Fir). He also planted the pine cones after conditioning them in the freezer following instructions from Leavengood. Presumably, somewhere in Phoenix there is a descendant of OSU’s Moon Tree growing in a suburban backyard, and it got there via Oregon — and the moon.

(Sources: Jabin, Darrell. “A Moon Tree in Oregon” (video),; “A Moon Tree?”, Focus On Forestry, Winter 2000; Williams, David R. “The Moon Trees,” NASA Website; “In Search of Moon Trees,” NASA Science News, August 2002)

Finn J.D. John is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at . To contact him or suggest a topic: or 541-357-2222.

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