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10 ‘moon trees’ land in Durango

Student’s project honors local astronaut, Earth Day and Apollo mission

A bit of outer space is taking root in Durango: moon trees, grown from seeds that have orbited the moon more than 30 times.

Stuart “Stu” Roosa, born in Durango, took the seeds into outer space as part of an experiment during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. The “moon tree” seedlings and their descendants have been planted around the world.

In Durango, community members gathered Thursday for a planting ceremony at Roosa Park to celebrate Earth Day, Arbor Day, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission and the Roosa legacy – all because of a student project to learn about local parks.

“It’s very special. I know my father would be very pleased that we’ve come back to his roots to plant many roots,” said Rosemary Roosa, the astronaut’s daughter. “Durango, daddy and destiny – that’s what we’re celebrating today.”

Apollo astronaut Col. Stuart Roosa made 33 orbits around the moon with 500 tree seeds as part of a NASA experiment and to honor his time working in the U.S. Forest Service. Alex Gnehm, a Durango student, brought “moon trees” to Durango to honor Roosa’s legacy as part of a research project.

Stu Roosa worked for the Forest Service fighting fires as a smoke jumper in the 1950s and as a test pilot in the Air Force.

When he was selected to pilot the Apollo 14 command module, he brought 400 to 500 seeds from redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir and sweet gum trees on the mission. NASA wanted to see if the microgravity of space would affect their growth. (Decades later, it hasn’t.)

Many were planted as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976 and grow at national landmarks, such as the White House, Independence Square in Philadelphia, state capitols and university campuses. But none landed in Durango.

Within the week, Durango will have more moon trees than any other city in the world thanks to an inquisitive teenager, Alex Gnehm, 14, and his teacher, Chris Hughes.

The pair were learning about local park names when they discovered Roosa’s story. Gnehm wanted to know why moon trees were planted around the world, but not in Durango.

“We kept researching and researching and it started to become this whole, cool project,” Gnehm said.

About 50 people gathered Thursday in Roosa Park for the moon tree planting.

He called national organizations, like NASA, the Goddard and Kennedy space centers and the U.S. Forest Service, to get answers – a nerve-wracking prospect, at first, he said.

But it was getting to know Rosemary Roosa that stuck out to him most.

“The phone rang, and it was a young man and his teacher. ... They said, ‘Are you the daughter of the astronaut?’ I said, yes,” Roosa said. “They were all of a sudden very excited.”

They’ve probably talked on the phone “a hundred times” during the two-year project, Gnehm said. They met in-person for the first time Thursday before the moon tree ceremony.

“She’s the daughter of an astronaut. Three years ago, I would never think I would be talking to her,” Gnehm said.

Rosemary Roosa hugs Alex Gnehm, 14, a home-schooled Durango student, as Chris Hughes, his teacher, looks on during the moon tree planting ceremony Thursday in Roosa Park.
An educational plaque will be placed at the moon tree in Roosa Park.

The city’s 10 moon trees, all American sycamores, are located at Durango Montessori School, Mountain Middle School, St. Columba School, Hillcrest Golf Course, Needham Elementary School and the Powerhouse Science Center.

“Through this process, he’s been able to learn that a simple question can lead to big change,” said Bonnie Bertrand, Gnehm’s mother.

The project could grow into a curriculum for schools, a scavenger hunt or a geocaching game, Hughes and Gnehm said.

“As an educator, there’s so many nuggets we can get kids inspired by, and so much is not in a textbook,” Hughes said. “If one out of 100 educators want to take a little nugget of this and build off it, that’s a win for me.”

For now, the trees will stand as an educational testament to Roosa and his legacy.

“These trees are going to be out here longer than us. If we put these little pieces out there for the community, every once in a while someone’s going to be inspired,” Hughes said. “We all know inspiration makes us better.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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