Off Beat: Clark County's 'moon tree' still branching out

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If you haven't been keeping tabs on our moon tree — "What? We have a moon tree?" — be assured that it's doing fine.

That unexpected update came from Lt. Gov. Brad Owen during the recent Marshall Lecture at Hudson's Bay High School. During his turn at the microphone, Owens offered a nod to the role Clark County students played in a little-known aspect of NASA's Apollo 14 mission.

Students from Evergreen, Camas and La Center planted Washington's moon tree in 1976 in Olympia, as part of our celebration of America's Bicentennial.

The tree "still stands at the main entrance to the Capitol campus," Owen said.

The Democrat lieutenant governor also provided some much-needed background.

Astronaut Stuart Roosa had been a smoke jumper, so when he was allowed to take some personal keepsakes on his Apollo mission in 1971, he brought a metal cylinder filled with about 400 tree seeds. His bit of whimsy became a joint NASA-Forest Service science experiment.

While Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the moon, Roosa piloted the command module. Roosa and his seed-filled cylinder orbited the moon 34 times.

Things looked a little dicey, research-wise, after the mission was completed. During decontamination, the canister burst when it was exposed to a vacuum and the seeds were scattered. Scientists feared the seeds were no longer viable.

No worries: Nearly all of them germinated, producing hundreds of seedlings that had been to the moon.

Five species of seeds went to the moon, with Washington receiving a Douglas fir seedling.

It has outlived Roosa, who died in 1994.

— Tom Vogt

Off Beatlets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.