I was headed home from spending the day touring Gettysburg when I decided to detour through the community of Dillsburg. A couple minutes after turning off Route 15, I could see the sycamore standing guard at the corner of the elementary school. Seeing school was over for the summer, I was able to park close to my destination. I stepped out to study the tree whose journey to arrive at this spot was a long journey.
This sycamore looks like any other sycamore. Nothing about the tree itself would hint at its importance. As I walked over to the sycamore, I could see a small plaque flush with the ground at its base. I paused to read the stone that confirmed this was the tree I sought: “American sycamore / Seedling taken to the / Moon by Apollo 14 on / January 31, 1971 / Planted here / Arbor Day 1983.”
Known as “Moon Trees” “Bicentennial Moon Trees” or “Bicentennial Trees,” this tree was planted from one of five hundred seeds taken into space aboard the Apollo 14 mission by Stuart Roosa, the astronaut who piloted the command module. Roosa had taken five small canisters filled with the seeds from five different trees: Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Sweetgum, Redwood, and Douglas Fir. While Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the moon, Roosa and the seeds orbited the moon.
During the decontamination process, the canisters broke open and the experiment was deemed unsuccessful. The seeds were taken to National Forest Service stations in Gulfport, Mississippi and Placerville, California. The seeds were planted and most of the seeds sprouted. In 1976 the trees were given away as a part of the bicentennial of the United States. The first Moon Tree was planted at Washington Square, Philadelphia in May 1975.
The problem with the Moon Trees being given away was no one kept record of who received the seedlings and where they were planted. It would not be until 1996 NASA began tracking down the trees and created a list of known trees – living and dead – but the list is missing many trees.
The tree given to York County was one of the four trees initially given to Pennsylvania for the nation’s bicentennial celebration.
The story I had initially heard about the Dillsburg Moon Tree was the following: it was originally planted at the Northern Elementary School on April 30, 1976 as a part of the community’s Arbor Day celebration. When the elementary school was closed and Dillsburg Elementary School opened, the tree was transported to its current position under the watch of the community. On April 29, 1983, the sycamore was replanted and rededicated as part of the that year’s Arbor Day celebration. At the time, it was proclaimed this was the last of the Moon Trees to be planted and dedicated.
It sounded like a good story, right? Maybe the story was a little too good to be true.
Earlier this year, I received a message from Dr. Dave Williams, who runs the NASA Moon Trees website, about the Dillsburg Moon Tree. Dr. Williams comments: “I recently found out that the Dillsburg Moon Tree was never planted at Northern Elementary, but was planted directly as a seedling at Dillsburg in 1983. I don’t know how the Northern Elementary School story got started, but I spoke with Jack Wisnieski who cared for the seedling originally and helped plant it at Dillsburg.”
I studied the Dillsburg tree and it looked extremely healthy. I knew a number of the trees have prematurely developed rot and have died, but this one does not show any signs of it. Note: While a number of trees over the years have died from rot, I have not found an official connection linking the tree rot to their time in space. Was it the time the seeds spent in space or were the seeds structurally damaged during the decontamination process? The majority of known Moon Trees appear to be healthy by all reports, so why the health of some of the trees has been affected while others have not is a mystery.
Knowing I had a ways to go before my day was over, I finished my visit to the forgotten and overlooked space visitor. I silently left it to continue standing guard at the corner of the Dillsburg Elementary School and hoped this living astronaut continued to inspire future generations.
Note: This Moon Tree stands at the corner of the Dillsburg Elementary School. Please use common sense and respect – if you’re going to visit it, please do so during times when school is not in session.