The Tree that Links UF, the Moon, and Hurricane Irma

By Kim Scotto-Kelley

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After a priceless tree at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex was lost during Hurricane Irma, UF/IFAS scientists provided an “out-of-this-world” donation to continue its legacy.

In 1971, a seed the size of a golf ball spent two weeks in micro-gravity on Apollo 14, traveling to the Moon and back. Upon its return to Earth, the seed was grown into a sycamore tree sapling in a U.S. Forest Service laboratory, and eventually planted in a place of honor at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex during the 1976 United States bicentennial celebration.

For more than 40 years, the “Moon Tree” served as an educational tool for visitors. And then Hurricane Irma swept through the area in 2017, with the tree among the damages.

Luckily, the tree was grown from just one of 500 seeds brought into space by astronaut Stuart Roosa during the 1971 mission. The remainder of the 420 successful saplings had been distributed to various universities and institutions across the country. The University of Florida was fortunate to receive three Moon Trees: two pines and one sycamore.

The trees were planted on campus without much fanfare in hopes of keeping their exact locations secret. However, with no identifying tags, the two pines fell victim to poor management. The 75-foot-tall sycamore, though, still stands proud near the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation’s Newins-Ziegler Hall. It was this seven-story-high tree that was cloned by UF/IFAS faculty and staff for Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Jonathan Lubar, center, horticulturist and greenhouse manager with the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation, prepares to hand off the cloned Moon Tree to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex representatives on the UF campus. Also pictured are SFRC faculty members Jason Smith, second from left, and Michael Andreu, right. (UF/IFAS)

Two forestry faculty members, Michael Andreu and Jason Smith, spearheaded the effort, but fostering the sapling was the pride and joy of Jonathan Lubar, horticulturist and greenhouse manager for Smith’s Forest Pathology lab with the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation.

The cloning process sounds surprisingly simple: Cuttings are taken from the tree and propagated in a controlled setting until new roots are formed. However, getting the conditions just right can be a challenge. Out of the ten cuttings Smith and Lubar collected, only six rooted and survived into the spring. Lubar selected the most successful individual to be donated to Kennedy Space Center, and the remaining saplings were donated to local public gardens and nonprofit organizations.

“I’ve been a big fan of our space program since third grade – 60 years ago – and astronauts are heroes to me,” Lubar said. “It was truly an honor to be a part of this project.”

Therrin Protze, chief operating officer at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, praised the partnership between the university and the center.

“We were devastated at the loss of the Moon Tree following Hurricane Irma and are grateful to the University of Florida for working so hard to replace it with a cloned sapling,” Protze said.  “The pairing of human ingenuity with science results in the kind of innovation that has put men on the Moon and will take us even farther. To us, this tree is a perfect example of that same level of innovation, and we are honored to be its new home.”

The sapling was collected this spring and has been replanted at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS website at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media.

Kim Scotto-Kelley can be reached at (352) 294-7018 or kscotto@ufl.edu.

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