Mississippi State University, home to out-of-this-world tree

Published 6:48 am Sunday, May 29, 2022

On Mississippi State University’s campus stands an out-of-this-world tree — a sycamore grown from a seed that ventured further into space than most Mississippians ever will. All the way to the moon.

The tree, known as the “moon sycamore,” was planted by astronaut Stuart Roosa upon his return to Earth from the Apollo 14 mission in the 1970s. It stands in the Junction, near the southwest corner of David Wade Stadium, and is marked by a plaque.

The tree, part of MSU’s campus tree trail, stands out as a treasure at a university known for a rich history of agriculture programs.

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Roosa fought fires as a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper and joined the U.S. Air Force prior to being selected as one of 19 new NASA astronauts in 1966.

In 1971, from Jan. 31 to Feb. 9, Roosa served as Command Module Pilot for the Apollo 14 mission. While his fellow crew members Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell spent 33 hours on the surface of the moon, Roosa remained in lunar orbit aboard the command module “Kitty Hawk.” During that time, he conducted a variety of photographic and visual observations, according to NASA.

When he was selected for the mission, NASA allowed Roosa to carry approximately 500 tree seeds with him into space. The species of seeds selected included loblolly pine, sycamore, sweet gum, redwood and Douglas fir trees.

After the flight, the seeds were germinated, and some were planted alongside their earthbound counterparts to compare their growth. After years of observation, the Forest Service determined there was no discernible difference between the trees whose seeds had been in space and those that had not.

Many of these so-called moon trees were given to state forestry organizations to be planted as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. MSU was the proud recipient of a sycamore moon tree, planted on the campus by Roosa himself in 1975.

Bart Prather, associate director of campus landscape, has worked at MSU for 23 years, where his department maintains just shy of 1,500 acres of land, caring for grass, shrubs and trees on campus — including the moon sycamore.

“It’s nice to have something this historic,” Prather said. “It’s got a good story.”

Over the years, the tree has overlooked thousands of students coming and going. Through college football tailgating and the mighty winds of a hurricane, the moon sycamore has continued to stand tall.

That’s not to say it hasn’t had a close call or two over the past nearly five decades. In 2005, the moon sycamore was damaged when Hurricane Katrina tore through Mississippi.

Starkville’s moon tree did not escape the storm unscathed, not that most people admiring its beauty would ever notice.

“We lost the top out of it,” Prather said. “If you look at it, you really don’t see that. It recovered well, and it’s come back.”

Today, the tree that has been from the moon to Mississippi still stands strong.

“It’s a healthy tree,” Prather said. “Hopefully, we’ll get a lot more years out of it.”