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Moon Tree highlights University of Arizona's connection to Space Race

Posted: 2:41 PM, May 20, 2024
Updated: 2024-05-20 21:26:21-04
Moon Tree on the University of Arizona campus

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Among the almost 8,000 trees on the University of Arizona campus you'll find a very special American Sycamore. Called the Moon Tree, it is appropriately located between the Kuiper Space Sciences Building and the Flandrau Planetarium.

The history of the tree began back in early 1971, when Apollo 14 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center.

"You watch this thing take off and it is just an amazing sight," said Jack Roosa.

Jack Roosa was 10 years old when he watched his father, Stuart Roosa, and two other astronauts lift off into space. Packed away in Stuart Roosa's personal kit were hundreds of tree seeds, part of a joint NASA-Forest Service project.

"He was a smokejumper in the Forest Service," recalled Jack Roosa. "He loved the outdoors, loved the Forest Service and so he flew these seeds as a tribute to the Forest Service."

Five days into the Apollo 14 mission, Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the Moon. Shepard famously hit a golf ball off the surface of the moon.

Meantime, Stuart Roosa circled above in the command module.

Apollo 14 command module pilot Stuart Roosa

"He got asked the question a lot, 'you're the one that didn't get to walk on the moon?'" said Jack Roosa. "His response was always, 'hey look, you're lucky just to get a seat on an Apollo mission'."

On February 6, 1971, the crew of Apollo 14—along with 94 pounds of moon rocks—splashed down back on Earth. Also safely back from the moon: those 500 tree seeds.

"Up it went all the way to the moon, 33 times around the moon and all the way back," Jack Roosa said.

That might have been where this story of the 500 moon tree seeds ends. But five years later, as part of the Bicentennial celebration, Stuart Roosa went around the country helping to plant the seeds that had grown into saplings.

"The U of A got one," said Jack Roosa. "That's because he attended the U of A."

After one year at the University of Arizona in the 1950s, Stuart Roosa joined the Air Force, becoming a fighter pilot and then an astronaut. He came back to Tucson in 1976 to dedicate the UA Moon Tree.

"They planted these seeds at the White House, they planted them at Philadelphia Park near the Liberty Bell," remembered Jack Roosa. "Obviously, the University of Arizona would be one of those—and just all over the country."

Moon Tree near Flandrau Planetarium

The University of Arizona's Moon Tree has been flourishing next to the Flandrau Planetarium ever since. Although, a major freeze in Tucson in 2013 nearly did it in.

"It took out the top," said Jack Roosa. "There's a little bit of damage up there, but it seems to have recovered. It's still thriving. For all of the miles put on it, it's still looking pretty good."

It is safe to say most students making their way down the UA Mall pass right by the Moon Tree without ever knowing its significance.

"They have to walk across the grass, start reading that, then they might figure it out," Jack Roosa said referring to the Moon Tree sign.

Bicentennial Moon Tree plaque at the University of Arizona

Stuart Roosa went on to see his son Jack graduate from the Air Force Academy and become an F-16 fighter pilot before Stuart's death in 1994. But Jack points out, his father's legacy lives on through these Moon Trees.

Jack Roosa F-16 fighter pilot

"He had the foresight to know that these trees would outlast him, that would outlast everyone that was involved with the Apollo program, and now we've got a living legacy actually of that program."

After following in his father's footsteps becoming a fighter pilot, Jack Roosa moved to Tucson to work for Raytheon. His daughter graduated from the University of Arizona in 2011.


Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.