The moon tree has landed in Durango.
For the unacquainted, Durango is home to Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa, who died in December 1994 at the age of 61 and now has a park and street bearing his name in town.
As per tradition, astronauts typically bring some sort of keepsake on missions to outer space: Neil Armstrong, for instance, brought his fraternity pin, and Buzz Aldrin brought a chalice, bread and wine to take communion on the moon.
Roosa, however, got a little more creative for the Jan. 31, 1971, mission to the moon.
Roosa, a former smoke jumper for the U.S. Forest Service, decided to partner with the agency and bring about 500 seedlings into space to later plant throughout the entire U.S., and even in different countries.
Of note, moon trees now grow at the White House, Independence Square in Philadelphia, the Kennedy Space Center, as well as many state capitols, universities and botanical gardens.
Five different types of trees – loblolly pine, sycamore, sweetgum, redwood and Douglas fir – orbited the moon 34 times. The idea was to see if radiation exposure, extreme cold or microgravity conditions affected growth.
Despite the very earnest experiment, it’s been noted that moon trees bear no discernible difference from their earthbound counterparts.
And though moon trees can now be found in nearly every state, inexplicably, one has never been planted in Durango.
That missing piece struck 13-year-old Alex Gnehm as odd, too, when he learned about Roosa and his moon trees last fall, said Chris Hughes, his school instructor.
“Alex asked, ‘Why the heck isn’t there one in Durango?’” Hughes said.
So, they called NASA.
After a year or so of coordinating, a moon tree was planted Saturday in Durango, across from the Powerhouse Science Center, along the Animas River.
“What an awesome local connection to Apollo 14,” said Jeff Susor, executive director of the center.
Durango’s moon tree is sycamore that’s a second generation, grown from a graft of an original tree located in Mississippi.
Roosa’s daughter, Rosemary, said there are only about 80 to 90 original moon trees still living, so a few years ago, she took the initiative to start the Moon Tree Foundation to create a second generation of plants.
Rosemary Roosa, who lives in Mississippi, said she hopes to help bring a second moon tree to Durango to be planted on Earth Day next year.
“I don’t know why it didn’t happen before,” she said. “But I think he would be really happy to know a moon tree has landed in Durango.”
The planting of the moon tree also kicks off the Powerhouse Science Center’s monthly virtual lecture series about space, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 14 mission coming up next year.