Moon tree

Using seeds that had traveled to the moon on board Apollo 14, the maple sycamore was planted in Mercer County near Princeton on October 15, 1957.

PRINCETON — Not many people know that for almost 50 years, a veteran space traveler has been standing and growing on that part of West Virginia known as Mercer County.

The journey of a sycamore maple standing near the former USDA Forestry Lab in Gardner started on Jan. 31, 1971 when Apollo 14 was launched. Five days later, astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell landed on the moon while fellow astronaut Stuart Roosa, a former U.S Forest Service smoke jumper, stayed behind to pilot the command module. He wasn’t completely alone.

Packed in Roosa’s personal kit were containers filled with hundreds of tree seeds, part of a joint NASA/USFS project. When the astronauts returned to Earth, the Forest Service took charge of the seeds and germinated them. Seeds from Loblolly pine, sycamore, sweetgum, redwood and Douglas fir were used in the experiment. Almost all the seeds sprouted, resulting in 420 to 450 seedlings. Many of the trees were distributed among the states as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration.

One of these Moon Tree ceremonies was conducted on Oct. 18,1975 outside what was then the Forest Products Marketing Laboratory near Princeton. According to the event’s program, the dedication address was made by U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

In his address, which is in the ceremony’s program, Byrd told the audience how forest by-products aided America’s space program. For example, a product called nitrocellulose was an important ingredient in solid rocket propellants.

“As our forests now make space travel possible, centuries ago trees made other journeys possible,” Byrd said. “During our country’s birth forests made us a seafaring nation ... they became the material upon which we built our nation. Because of this, a seedling from the very seeds that journeyed to the moon and back is being planted near Princeton, West Virginia, at the Forest Service Research Laboratory. It symbolizes the major role forests played in developing our American Heritage and the vital role forests have in our future.”

Later, there were questions about whether the Moon Tree, possibly the only one in West Virginia, was still standing. County Commissioner Bill Archer said that a Forestry Service employee “with impeccable credentials” understood that the seedling was later mowed over by accident; however, a sycamore tree stands in that spot today.

“It’s in the right place and it’s the right size,” Archer said. “It’s a friendly dispute. There’s no argument about that. The only way to be sure would be to collect a core sample and determine the actual age of the sycamore.”

The tree is in the forestry center’s front yard not far from Gardner Road.

“The current location is right on line with the historic location where it was planted,” Archer stated, adding, “It’s an awesome-looking tree. It’s large and also very tall, and it’s the largest tree right there in the area.”

There are plans to place a marker near the tree so visitors will know about its significance.

“It is an attraction there,” Archer said.

Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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