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LETTER: The history behind Indiana’s ‘Moon Trees’

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Standing on the 200 block of 15th street in Tell City, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual. The Forest Service office stands on the east side and there is a fence surrounding the compound. Behind the fence stand two sweetgum trees huddled together. They are much like the others you see all over town and throughout the Hoosier National Forest.

There is one distinction however, that you can’t tell by looking; the seeds that these trees sprouted from have been to the moon.                        

Jan. 31, 1971, was rainy and overcast at the Kennedy Space Center. It wasn’t the kind of day one would expect for a launch into space. The eloquent Saturn V launch vehicle, which had been conceived and developed for the purpose of sending men to the moon, stood over 36 stories tall, or 363 feet, on launch pad A at launch complex 39.

Its Apollo spacecraft was perched at the very top. Inside the capsule were Alan Shepard (who had been the first American into space back in 1961), Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa. Eight minutes before launch time a hold had been called because of unsatisfactory weather conditions. The world waited as heavy rain clouds scudded across the cape. After a period of 40 minutes the director gave his A-OK and the launch was made at 4:03 p.m.

The ground shook for miles as the cluster of five F-1 engines in the first stage ignited, producing 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The rocket shivered for a moment on its launch pad as if in anticipation. The four hold-down arms then simultaneously folded back and released the Saturn V amid great clouds of white smoke that roiled away from the bottom of the colossal vehicle as it cleared the gantry and started its climb into the heavens.

The booster burned 203,000 gallons of refined kerosene and 331,000 gallons of liquid oxygen in the first two and a half minutes of flight, flinging the 6.2 million pound craft skyward with a mighty heave. Twelve minutes later the Apollo spacecraft was 115 miles above the Earth, flying at 17,500 miles per hour on its way to mankind’s third trip to the surface of the moon.

Stuart Roosa from Durango, Colo., one of the astronauts hurtling through space, was a former smokejumper who had worked with the Forest Service fighting fires in the early 1950s.

When he was selected for the Apollo 14 mission, Ed Cliff, chief of the Forest Service contacted him and asked if he would take some seeds with him on his journey to the moon.

They were to be studied for the effects of long-term weightlessness. The astronaut was happy to oblige and carried several hundred of them with him in his personal kit. The seeds from five different kinds of trees were chosen for the joint NASA-Forest Service project. They were: loblolly pine, Douglas fir, redwood, sycamore and sweetgum.

The space flight was successfully completed in February 1971, when the men returned to Earth and Roosa handed the seeds back over to the Forest Service. They were then germinated and produced more than 400 seedlings. Most of these were given away during 1975 and 1976, some as part of the United State’s bicentennial celebration.

A loblolly pine was planted at the White House. Other trees were given to many state forestry groups, although not every state received a tree because of climate considerations. One of the trees even went back to where it all started at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Some were given to other countries, as well, including Japan, Switzerland and Brazil.

Indiana received five moon trees in 1976. A sycamore was planted at Camp Koch Girl Scout Camp in Cannelton, another sycamore went to the Indiana statehouse in Indianapolis, two sweetgum trees went to the Tell City ranger station and are still living there.

After more than a quarter of a century, most of the trees are thriving and appear normal. No distinction can be seen due to the prolonged weightlessness that the seeds underwent during their journey to the moon.

Tragically, Stuart Roosa passed away in December 1994. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, a hero of our country’s space program. The “moon trees” stand as living monuments to the astronaut corps and to the Apollo Space Program.

JIM ADKINS
Tell City

(More letters appear in today's print edition.)