SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — Sacramento’s Capitol Park is filled with multiple species of trees from all over the world, but one of those trees actually reached the final frontier of outer space.
In the 1970s, NASA and the United States Forest Service (USFS) came together on an experiment that seems like something out of science fiction— take the seeds of trees to the moon and back to Earth.
These trees would come to be known as the “Moon Trees”, one of which, a coastal redwood, stands hundreds of feet tall next to the State Capitol in Capitol Park.
The experiment was carried out during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971, as USFS smokejumper turned US Air Force test pilot Stuart Roosa would be one of the three astronauts on the mission.
Then USFS Chief Ed Cliff was a smokejumper with Roosa and asked him if he could take some seeds with him into space.
The seeds for the coastal redwoods were collected from the home of Carl Fowler in Soquel in Santa Cruz County.
Fowler collected 500 redwood seeds and sent them to Dr. Charles Walkinshaw on Jan. 15, 1971, who was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a special assignment from NASA.
Roosa also carried seeds from Douglas firs, sycamore, loblolly pine and sweetgum trees. NASA estimates that Roosa was carrying several thousand seeds.
In order to measure if the Moon Trees experienced any changes, control seeds were left on Earth for later comparison.
When the seeds returned to Earth, they were grown in cellulose thimbles in Houston under controlled conditions.
It was suggested by a member of the experiment in May 1971 that the seeds be moved immediately to USFS Institute of Forest Genetics stations in Gulfport, Mississippi and Placerville, California because they did not have the necessary facilities to care for the seeds in Houston.
This request was ignored and it was not until July 1972 that the seeds were moved to Placerville and Gulfport.
The seeds of the Douglas fir and the redwoods were sent to Placerville, while the remaining seeds were sent to Gulfport.
Of the original 500 redwood seeds, 150 survived and were sent to Placerville, 20 of which germinated successfully
According to NASA reports, that is the normal mortality rate for redwoods.
By 1976, 16 redwoods survived. Four died in December of 1972 from damping-off fungi and were collected by Henry J. Switzer on April 2, 1976 for distribution.
Of the 16, the three best-known are the tree in Capitol Park and two trees at U.C. Berkeley in Tilden Park.
However, one of the moon trees may have been planted in El Dorado Hills, but the location was not listed on the official allocation sites.
While it is amazing that the Capitol tree made 36 rotations around the Moon, this tree and the others like it serve as a monument to the life of Roosa, his fellow smoke jumpers and USFS service members.