Even if humanity never returns to the Moon, veterans of the lunar missions will still be around for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. That's because the Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa brought hundreds of seeds with him to the Moon, and many of these were later planted to create the so-called Moon trees. The only problem? No one is exactly sure where they are anymore.
Roosa and the seeds never actually stepped foot on the Moon - they stayed up in the command module and made thirty-four orbits of the Moon while fellow astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell headed down to the surface. Roosa's background was a smokejumper, a firefighter who parachutes into the middle of wildfires to put out the inferno from within. As such, he had a fondness for trees, and was easily persuaded to take the seeds with him.
The seeds included those for redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir, and sweetgum trees, and all these various types were planted once Roosa and his fellow astronauts returned from the Moon in 1971. There was considerable doubt at the time that the seeds would actually be able to germinate after so long in space, and things weren't helped when a mistake during decontamination subjected the seeds' canister to a sudden vacuum, bursting the container and sending the seeds in all directions.
Still, the seeds survived and started germinating, and after five years under the care of the Forest Service, the Moon trees were set to form a part of the United States's bicentennial celebrations. The trees were sent throughout the country...and then no one quite knew what happened to them. At least, NASA wasn't keeping careful records, as Dave Williams of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center explains:
"Hundreds of moon trees were distributed as seedlings, but we don't have systematic records showing where they all went."
Williams has set out to fix this by creating a website that tracks and records the whereabouts of all known Moon trees. Though NASA wasn't paying attention to where they went, the towns that received the trees recorded the occasion in local newspapers and often dedicated plaques commemorating the trees' remarkable origins.
Williams has rediscovered trees in twenty-two different states, not to mention Washington, DC and the Rio Grande do Sul region of Brazil. But perhaps the most remarkable find was one that was right in front of Williams the whole time - as he explains, a person once emailed him about the exclusion of a certain sycamore:
"About a year after I put the webpage up, someone contacted me and asked why I didn't have the moon tree at Goddard [Space Flight Center] listed. I hadn't known it was there!"
Although some of the trees have already died, many could live on for centuries, a quiet reminder of humanity's remarkable achievement in space exploration. You can check out Dave Williams's website on moon trees, this interactive map of all the trees' locations, and you can even buy your own Moon tree for what I've got to admit is a shockingly reasonable price.