Less than full orbit: The history of Flagstaff’s moon tree

There’s a small Douglas fir just uphill from Frances Short Pond.

Since 1976, it’s grown slowly alongside what was once Flagstaff Junior High School. And beneath it is a fading, wooden sign. The sign reads: “This seedling was grown from the very seeds that journeyed to the moon and back on board Apollo 14.”

Longtime Flagstaff science educator Jim David harvested those seeds from Mars Hill to be carried by Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa. NASA ultimately took some 500 seeds on the mission, after collecting them from across the country.

“It was our idea,” says David. “They did it and brought the seeds back and (Roosa) was standing there when we put (the moon tree) in the ground. That pond changed a lot of kids’ lives. And it changed my life as well.”

The moon tree, now largely forgotten, has been a symbol of all that was accomplished at the pond. Once controversial, the pond became a centerpiece of the education received by thousands of students as they learned science, art and history in an outdoor classroom dreamed up by one man and created by many.

The tree has inspired many over the years, helping pull students toward careers in science and fascinating many casual passersby.

Susan Palm, who works at nearby Flagstaff High School, says she likes to walk by the tree, taking time to visit it sometimes on lunch breaks and occasionally bringing a friend along to see for themselves.

Flagstaff geologist Wayne Ranney says he’s also been drawn to the tree, beginning when he moved to the neighborhood in the early 1990s. Several years ago, he realized the tree was struggling through the ongoing drought and noticed as its needles started turning brown. Ranney nursed it back to health — trimming and watering it regularly, then digging out a water catchment area. He even slipped it some Miracle-Gro.

“I’m a geologist and I’ve taken a real liking to the tree because I’m just so interested that the seeds went to the moon and landed here,” Ranney says.

And yet, this moon tree never went to the moon. The original was quickly destroyed by a vandal and secretly replaced by well-intentioned caretakers.

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