In January 1971, Stuart Roosa, a red-haired and blue-eyed American astronaut, set off to the moon with hundreds of tree seeds sealed in his personal kit. He was among the three astronauts chosen for the Apollo 14 mission, the third manned lunar landing. From a smoke jumper fighting forest fires in the US Forest Service to an astronaut exploring the pristine land of a remote celestial body, Roosa had come a long way to participate in the historic mission of Apollo 14. Although Roosa had never set foot on the surface of the moon, he orbited above in the command module, recording crucial statistics and sending valuable photos back to the earth headquarter. Most importantly, he carried seeds of lives during the mission that would continue the legacy of the moon landing onto the Earth.
Like the rest of Americans, the residents of Monterey were probably watching in awe in front of their TV screens as they saw Commander Alan Shepard hitting a golf ball single-handedly on the lunar surface in his clumsy spacesuit. Little would they know, however, that the legacy of Apollo 14 would be brought back from the moon to a street corner of their own town.
The project began after Roosa was chosen for the mission. Knowing him from his past service in the US Forest Service, Ed Cliff, Chief of the institute, contacted him about bringing seeds into space. Five different kinds of seeds were chosen for the project, including Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Sweet gum, Redwood, and Douglas Fir. Upon returning to the Earth, some of the seeds were sent to the US Forest Service nursery in Placerville, California. Despite the exciting fact about the moon seeds, the Forest Service kept the issue in secret, worrying that it would attract too many eager spectators. “It was a very hush-hush top secret affair,” said Roger Stutz, the resource manager of the Forest Service. “Only two staff members even knew about it.”
Nearly all of the seeds in Placerville germinated. By 1975, they had grown large enough to be transplanted. It was one year after then that Richard Ernest, a state forest ranger, presented one of the redwood saplings to Monterey Mayor Peter J. Coniglio. In honor of the Bicentennial of the United States, the two foot sapling was presented to the city at 10 a.m. on July 27th, 1976 in front of the Colton Hall. At the time, a sense of excitement seemed to linger in the air. No one was certain whether the weightless condition in space would cause any genetic modification to the seeds. Although time has proven that traveling to space had no effect on the tree, Moon Tree still became an interesting story in history that is hidden just in a garden corner of our town.
Today, as you stroll down the lawn in front of the Colton Hall and into the brick pavement of the Friendly Plaza, you may see the tree that has an extraordinary history behind it. As expressed by Huell Howser in his show California’s Gold, “It [the Moon Tree] has a lingering statement to make, an endearing, an enduring statement to make.”
Moon Trees in California
For more information:
Moon Trees: Huell Howser’s California’s Gold
Complete locations of Moon Trees in the United States