Rice adds ‘moon tree’ to campus arboretum

Rice plants a new seedling of unconventional space history

More than half a century after President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous “Moon Speech” at Rice Stadium, a “moon tree” has landed on campus. A Loblolly pine tree grown from seeds taken into space on the Apollo 14 mission to the moon was planted Feb. 9.

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Pictured from left are George Abbey, the Baker Botts Senior Fellow in Space Policy at Rice’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and former director of Johnson Space Center; Martel College senior Rachel Turkington; David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute; John Freeman, professor emeritus and research professor of space physics and astronomy; Rice President David Leebron; Apollo 13 astronaut Capt. Fred Haise; Rosemary Roosa, daughter of Apollo 14 command module pilot Stuart Roosa; and Apollo 16 astronaut Gen. Charlie Duke. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

Two astronauts were present for the tree planting during a ceremony on Feb. 9, the 45th anniversary of Apollo 14’s Pacific Ocean splashdown: Apollo 13 astronaut Capt. Fred Haise and Apollo 16 astronaut Gen. Charlie Duke. Rosemary Roosa, daughter of Apollo 14 command module pilot Stuart Roosa, also attended.

The moon tree was planted near Main Street between the Gate 1 and Gate 2 roadways.

Much like Rice’s history with NASA, the moon tree’s legacy has spanned decades.

The command module pilot for the Apollo 14 mission, Stuart Roosa, was a former U.S. Forestry Service smokejumper, and it was his idea to take 500 seeds from four species of trees into space. After the seeds orbited the moon, they returned to Earth and were germinated and planted by the U.S. Forest Service at its stations in Mississippi and California. More than 400 of the seeds were successfully grown, many of which have since been transplanted to sites all across the United States and around the world.

“Over the years, however, the trees that remained at the Forestry Service’s Gulfport Mississippi facility were exposed to natural challenges, including diseases and storms such as Hurricane Katrina,” said Rosemary Roosa, daughter of the late astronaut Stuart Roosa. “Today, only seven of the original ‘moon pines’ planted at the Gulfport site still survive.”

Recognizing the importance of those trees’ unique genotypes, the U.S. Forest Service began working to preserve them through cloning and grafting. Rice’s tree comes from a propagated cutting from one of the original moon trees planted in Mississippi in the 1970s.

But it wasn’t until Martel College senior Rachel Turkington stepped in that the moon tree was able to complete its journey and touch down at Rice. Through an internship at Rice’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Turkington learned about Rice’s long history of collaboration with NASA, and knowing of the existence of the moon trees thanks to her parents’ longtime friendship with Rosemary Roosa, Turkington contacted Roosa to propose the donation of a moon tree to Rice’s Lynn R. Lowrey Arboretum. Working with the U. S. Forestry Service, Roosa was able to arrange the donation.

During the recent planting ceremony, Rice President David Leebron stood behind a replica of the lectern that President Kennedy used when he spoke at Rice Stadium in 1962. Leebron explained that the Apollo 14 moon landing was especially significant to Rice, as the mission’s payload included an experiment which was designed and built at Rice by John Freeman, professor emeritus and research professor of space physics and astronomy.

Freeman developed three Suprathermal Ion Detector Experiments, which were placed in three different sites on the moon by three different Apollo crews. Inside the heat shield of the Apollo 14 experiment, Freeman and his Rice graduate student assistants placed a small, adhesive Rice pennant, which still remains, along with the rest of the apparatus, on the lunar surface.

“We at Rice are therefore proud to say that, in addition to the flag of the United States, first planted on the moon in 1969, and the flag of China, which arrived in 2013 aboard an unmanned lunar rover, there is another flag on the moon to this day, placed there in 1971 by the crew of Apollo 14: the flag of Rice University,” Leebron said.

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About Arie Passwaters

Arie Wilson Passwaters is a Web editor in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.