In a gray plastic pot on a windowsill somewhere in the south of England, Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) administrator Richard O’Sullivan attempts to grow an American sycamore tree.
As anyone who has successfully grown a plant from seed knows, that’s a feat in and of itself. But this is no ordinary sycamore sapling. Its provenance dates back to a mission to the Moon in 1971, when astronaut Stuart Roosa carried 500 tree seeds in his Apollo 14 spacecraft. The trees grown from these seeds became known as “Moon Trees”. Assuming the plant continues to thrive, O’Sullivan will be a rare third-generation moon tree.
“Forty seeds were collected from a mature second-generation tree growing in a private garden in central England,” says O’Sullivan, who volunteered for the project as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of the Royal Astronomical Society. “But only three of those seeds have germinated and I have one – so the pressure is a little on the high side.”
The idea of carrying tree seeds to the Moon originated in Roosa’s early career in the 1950s with the United States Forest Service. Like many early astronauts, Roosa was a true action hero. Before training as a military aircraft pilot, he undertook what is arguably an even more dangerous job as a paratrooper.
“The smokers would parachute into a forest fire, build a trench and do what they could to put out the fire before hiking to the nearest forest camp – it was quite grueling,” says the daughter of Roosa, Rosemary. I also think it got him on planes because he knew from a young age that he wanted to be a pilot.”
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After proving himself as a trained fighter pilot and later a test pilot in the U.S. Air Force, Roosa was selected as an astronaut in 1966. His first spaceflight would be as a command module pilot. for Apollo 14. That meant it would stay in orbit. alone around the Moon, while his two colleagues descended on the lunar surface.