NASA has appealed for help from the public in tracking down a plague of 'Moon trees' grown from seeds brought back from a 1971 lunar mission in an astronaut's personal kit. Space boffins say that the seeds survived in conditions of total vacuum and are thought to have been planted out at various locations on Earth, growing into trees outwardly resembling terrestrial species.
"Hundreds of moon trees were distributed as seedlings," says Dave Williams of NASA's Goddard spaceflight centre in Maryland, "but we don't have systematic records showing where they all went."
No space was set aside in the Apollo capsules for seeds found on the Moon, but it seems that astronaut Stuart Roosa, command module pilot on the Apollo 14 moonshot, got round this by bringing the seeds back from the Moon in his "personal preference kit". Astronauts are given a small private container in which they can carry whatever they choose into space and back: NASA never divulges the contents and takes no official interest in them beyond making sure they are safe to carry on board.
It seems that after the Apollo 14 astronauts splashed down, Roosa's package of seeds proved able to grow on Earth despite having previously been exposed to vacuum.
NASA's Williams believes that the seeds were those of ordinary Earth trees all along: Roosa actually took them with him from Earth in the first place, so the trees aren't really "moon trees" at all. This would account for the fact that Roosa got no nearer the Moon than orbit. As command module pilot he was forced to remain in space while his colleagues Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell descended to the surface. Roosa's interest in tree seeds is explained by the fact that he had once worked at the US Forest Service as a parachuting fireman.
(Shephard, rather than cramming his personal kitbag with seeds, slipped in golf balls and a club head which he later attached to a government-issue geology tool, fashioning a crude six iron with which he hit the first and only golf shots ever played off the surface of a body other than planet Earth. As far as we know ... Shephard claimed his balls went "miles and miles and miles".)
Owing to the unofficial nature of Roosa's lunar tree seedling escapade, NASA kept no records of where all the moon trees may be and Williams has been playing catchup since the 1990s trying to track them down. He only discovered the existence of one at his own workplace, the Goddard centre, after setting up a website seeking information.
Periodically, NASA issues a fresh appeal to the public in its quest to track down the space-going vegetables: it did so yesterday, in fact, describing the effort to find the "moon trees" as "A Race Against Time to Find Apollo 14's Lost Voyagers".
You can learn more about moon trees at Williams' webpage, here. ®