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Seeds of Flagstaff tree went to moon; or did they?

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- A small Douglas fir tree stands uphill from Flagstaff's Frances Short Pond.

Beneath the tree planted alongside a former junior high school is a fading, wooden sign that reads: "This seedling was grown from the very seeds that journeyed to the moon and back on board Apollo 14."

The moon tree, now largely forgotten, has been a symbol of all that was accomplished at the pond. The pond became a centerpiece of the education received by thousands of students as they learned science, art and history in an outdoor classroom dreamed up by one man and created by many.

And yet, this moon tree never went to the moon.

The idea to bring seeds to the moon and back was germinated in Flagstaff, said longtime Flagstaff science educator Jim David. He helped collect Douglas fir seeds from the Lowell Observatory Scientific Preserve on Mars Hill.

Those seeds and hundreds of others from around the country went to the moon in 1971 aboard Apollo 14 with Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell and Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa. The seeds stayed on the command module with Roosa as he circled the moon for 33.5 hours, according to NASA records.

Apollo returned 14 days after it left Earth. The U.S. Forest Service took the seeds and germinated them. The trees later were delivered back to the states.

In an April 30, 1976 ceremony in Flagstaff, the Douglas fir moon tree was planted overlooking Frances Short Pond. Roosa, who started his career as a smokejumper with the Forest Service, was there.

Three days later, the plat was uprooted, and David found it lying on the ground.

David and scientist Jim Alam, now retired from the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, unsuccessfully tried to save the tree. A new one was planted in its place, but David never told anyone of the switch out of fear it would destroy the pond project.

``Nobody's ever asked me about it,'' he said. ``It changed a thousand lives, and as far as they're concerned, that tree went to the moon.''

In the early 1970s, the United States was caught up in the Apollo program. Thanks to the U.S. Geological Survey's role in the missions, Flagstaff was near the epicenter. Astronauts trained here and astronomers scouted landing sites by satellite and telescope.

The students in this mountain town were blessed with visits from astronauts like Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Roosa.

Susan Palm, who works at nearby Flagstaff High School, sometimes visits the tree on lunch breaks and occasionally brings a friend along. Flagstaff geologist Wayne Ranney once nursed the tree back to health as it was struggled through the ongoing drought.

Roosa developed a relationship with David's science class at Flagstaff Junior High School. The students were among those who visited the Apollo astronauts out at the Cinder Lake east of town while they trained for their voyage.

Their school was built next to a pit of rocks and cinders by what now is Thorpe Park.

David, then a recent university graduate and middle school biology teacher, saw other schools with ponds under their libraries. He wanted to transform the rock waste site into a pond and outdoor classroom. Support from the Flagstaff City Council wasn't unanimous.

``They had talked about turning the whole thing into a big parking lot,'' he says. ``There were a lot of people who didn't want this to happen at the time. There were a lot of fights.''

David prevailed on the project and enlisted the help of students, contractors and others to clear out a pond and pile silt for a U-shaped island. The National Guard, still stationed near the pond, helped David rescue a homesteader's cabin off the San Francisco Peaks. The cabin became a one-room schoolhouse.

``That pond itself was like an outdoor classroom, which each discipline could make use of,'' says Fannie Williams, who taught at the school for 28 years. ``Each one of my students was required at some point to adopt a tree and write about it and sometimes kids adopted the moon tree.''

Frances Short Pond no longer is used regularly as a classroom and the homestead-turned schoolhouse now is a place for transients to drink. But the pond project and legacy left by Palm and David still carries on in the Willow Bend Environmental Center.

In a city full of Apollo-era history, the moon tree's legacy is unknown to many. A long list of scientists, historians and educators contacted by the Daily Sun had no knowledge of the tree.

NASA's websites still claim that the Flagstaff moon tree had its origins with Apollo 14. The space agency's moon tree home page speculates that the Flagstaff tree might have stayed small because of the high elevation.

Many of the trees across the country are still alive, but few have signs proclaiming their history, said Heather Archuletta, a blogger who has visited the sites. Some second-generation trees are thriving in differing climates, she said.

Ranney, long the moon tree's unofficial caretaker after the middle school moved out, said he's undeterred that the Flagstaff moon tree never went to the moon. He was unaware of the pond project and thinks its legacy is made the richer by the story.

``This tree that currently exists is growing in the same place and the same soil where the moon tree was growing, so there is some connection,'' Ranney says. ``I will still take an interest in the tree for what it represents.''


Information from: Arizona Daily Sun,

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