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Scientists look for elusive 'moon trees'

By Richard Stenger

A "moon tree" at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland

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(CNN) -- They have no legs and outnumber active astronauts three to one. But hundreds of visitors to the moon that were dispersed across the Earth have done a good job of eluding NASA searchers.

The lunar veterans are trees that flew as seeds with astronauts on the Apollo 14 mission, which went to the moon in 1971.

After returning to terra firma, the petite passengers became highly prized space souvenirs, planted in gardens, schoolyards, on office campuses and museum grounds.

Over the years, the trees were all but forgotten until planetary scientist Dave Williams received a curious e-mail from an Indiana teacher six years ago.

"They said they had a tree that was a moon tree, but they had no details about it. I never heard of it, so I sent some messages to the NASA history office," said Williams, who works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Williams found that the whereabouts of most of the trees, which included redwood, Douglas fir, sycamore, sweet gum and loblolly pine, remained unknown.

He did some cyber-sleuth work and tracked down about 40. He said he hopes to find the locations of hundreds more.

A tangled tale

Astronaut Stuart
Astronaut Stuart "Smokey" Roosa carried seeds with him on Apollo 14.

How the seeds wound up on the NASA flight and then scattered over several continents afterward is a tangled tale.

When Apollo astronauts went to the moon, they were allowed to bring a handful of personal items. One of the astronauts, Al Shepard, packed golf balls.

His crew mate, the late Stuart "Smokey" Roosa, decided to take something to honor American forests, a tribute to his past as a smoke jumper, a U.S. Forest Service ranger who parachutes into remote wilderness areas to put out wildfires.

"It was part science, part publicity stunt," Stan Krugmen, a former U.S. Forest Service geneticist, told Science@NASA, a space agency online news service.

Roosa did not actually touch down. As pilot of the command module, he and his canister of seeds orbited the moon 34 times as Shepard and Ed Mitchell left their footprints in the lunar dust.

However, scientists were eager to study the seeds since at the time few experiments had tested the effects of space on botanical specimens.

The Forest Service studied the genetic structure of the seeds, investigating whether they would sprout and grow normally. They did.

Hundreds of the seedlings, later given away to commemorate the nation's bicentennial in 1976, scattered across the United States and beyond.

"One was planted at an Idaho elementary school, at a police station in Massachusetts," Williams said. "One is by the New Orleans Riverwalk, and another is at Helen Keller's birthplace [in Alabama]."

Most are in modest settings such as municipal parks or college campuses. Those without a marker are indistinguishable from their completely terrestrial counterparts.

Others wound up in more unusual settings. Trees were sent to the White House and handed out to international heads of state. There are moon trees in Brazil and Switzerland. One is in Japan, a gift to the emperor.

Which one is Williams' favorite? "I'm partial to the one at Goddard," quipped Williams, who manages a Web site that tracks the locations of known moon trees and offers other moon tree links.

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