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Olympia's moon Tree. Photo by Sarah Waller. Visit the photo slideshow for this story.

Olympia's moon Tree. Photo by Sarah Waller. Visit the photo slideshow for this story.


Olympia's Moon Tree

Sarah Waller

All week long, we are bringing you stories about Pacific Northwest trees and the role they play in our region and in our lives. Over half of Washington state is covered in forest. That's nearly 2 billion trees — about 250 for every person living here. And if there's one thing trees are known for, it's staying in one place. Being rooted. But, there's a tree in Washington that has traveled a lot in its lifetime. KUOW's Sarah Waller brings us the story in the next part of our series, "More Than A Tree."


Shuttle Audio: "Three, two, one: We have lift off!"

On January 31, 1971, Apollo 14 roared into the clear blue sky. Its destination: the Moon.

Shuttle Audio: "Roger, roll complete."

Humans had only landed there twice before. Each of the three astronauts on board had a small nylon pouch containing personal items they wanted to take into space.

Shuttle Audio: "Houston, everything looks good here on the ground."

Edgar Mitchell took a patch from his college fraternity. Alan Shepard brought golf balls, two of which he famously smacked off the lunar surface into space.

Shuttle Audio: "Miles and miles and miles."

But, Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa brought tree seeds. About five hundred of them. Because before Stuart was an astronaut, he was a smoke jumper with the US Forest Service. He worked in the Pacific Northwest fighting forest fires. He loved the woods. So, when the Forest Service approached NASA about taking tree seeds into space, Stuart stepped forward. He took them in his personal kit, and that meant carrying them a long, long way.

I called NASA to find out just how far those seeds traveled.

David Williams: "Dave Williams."

That's Dr. David Williams. He's a space scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Center. He watched the launch of the Apollo 14 mission as a kid.

Williams: "Well, the distance to the moon from the earth is roughly about 240,000 miles, but you don't go straight there. You kind of follow this big circular trajectory."

Once in the moon's orbit, the seeds circled 34 times with Stuart in the Command Module while the other two astronauts walked on the moon. Then, they came back to earth. The seeds had traveled about a million miles. NASA put them in a vacuum chamber as part of the decontamination process.

That's where things almost went wrong.

Williams: "The pressure was too much for the canister and it burst open. So, all the seeds came, basically came flying out and were instantly exposed to a vacuum. So, the fear was that the seeds, they killed the seeds."

But, just in case, NASA sent the seeds to the Forest Service to see if any had survived. They had.

In fact, almost all of them sprouted. They were healthy and didn't seem any different from a group of control seeds that had stayed back on earth. So, the Forest Service started giving the moon trees away.

One sapling was planted at the White House. Another at Valley Forge. Another one was given to the emperor of Japan. And one ended up right here in Olympia at the main entrance to the Capitol campus. It's a Douglas fir. It's about 40 feet tall now. You can see the Capital Dome rising behind it.

Ray Gleason: "This Douglas fir tree grows too large to even be this close to a street. Something will need to change."

Ray Gleason is an arborist. He was called in last summer when cracks started showing up in the sidewalk next to the moon tree. He did some excavation around the roots and found that they were boxed in by a busy street on one side and a sidewalk on the other. And for a tree species that's the third tallest in the world, that's like trying to raise a whale in a fishbowl. Ray fears that within 50 years the tree will die of root rot if something isn't done to give its roots more elbow room.

Gleason: "We need to change the roads and the sidewalk here sooner or later."

Marygrace Jennings: "The layout of the sidewalk is part of a grand plan, and it's not something you just tinker with."

That's Marygrace Jennings. She's the cultural resources manager for the state. She says saving the moon tree is not as simple as moving concrete. The sidewalks surrounding the tree were designed by two famous landscape architects — the Olmsted Brothers, one of whom helped design Central Park. So moving this sidewalk would mean changing a key design element in the Olmsted's historic plan.

Jennings: "And that was really something I was pretty reluctant about. I'd like the tree to last as long as it can, but it is planted in an urban setting."

The state didn't change the Olmsted design. However, they did give the tree a little extra space by shifting the location of a wheelchair ramp.

But new cracks are already starting to show. No one knows exactly how long the moon tree in Olympia can live in its current location. One proposal is to use seeds or grafts from the original tree to plant a second generation moon tree in a better location. But David Williams at NASA says that every time a moon tree is lost, we're losing more than a tree.

Williams: "Well, it's like a living artifact. The astronauts and all the people who worked on Apollo back then are disappearing now. So, it's very possible that the moon trees at some point, 20–30 years from now, the moon trees will be the only living things that have ever been to the moon."

News Report: "The astronauts are now safely inside the command module. Tonight they'll fire out of lunar orbit and head for splash down in the Pacific Tuesday afternoon."

I'm Sarah Waller for KUOW.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW