Space travellers, after having orbited the moon 34 times on board Apollo 14, are now living out their quiet lives.
The voyagers in question, however, are not astronauts. They are 'moon trees' - redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir, and sweetgum trees sprouted from seeds that astronaut Stuart Roosa took to the moon and back 40 years ago.
The whereabouts of more than 50 are known. Many, now aging, reside in prime retirement locales like Florida, Arizona and California. A few are in the Washington DC area. Hundreds more are out there - or at least, they were.
Now, Dave Williams of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., wants to find the lost voyagers before it's too late.
"Hundreds of 'moon trees' were distributed as seedlings," said Dave Williams.
"But we don't have systematic records showing where they all went," he added.
And though some of the trees are long-lived species expected to live hundreds or thousands of years, others have started to succumb to the pressures of old age, severe weather and disease.
At least a dozen have died, including the loblolly pine at the White House and a New Orleans pine that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and later removed.
To capture the vanishing historical record, Williams, a curator at the National Space Science Data Center, has been tracking down the trees, dead or alive.
His sleuthing started in 1996, prompted by an e-mail from a third-grade teacher, Joan Goble, asking about a tree at the Camp Koch Girl Scout Camp in Cannelton. A simple sign nearby read 'moon tree'.
"At the time, I had never heard of moon trees," said Williams.
"The sign had a few clues, so I sent a message to the NASA history office and found more bits and pieces on the web. Then I got in touch with Stan Krugman and got more of the story," he added.
Krugman, who was U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service's staff director for forest genetics research in 1971, had given the seeds to Roosa, who stowed them in his personal gear for the Apollo 14 mission.
Biologists weren't sure the seeds would germinate after such a trip. But the seeds did germinate, and the trees seemed to grow normally.
At Forest Service facilities, the moon trees reproduced with regular trees, producing a second generation called half-moon trees.
When Williams could find no detailed records of which trees went where, he created a web page to collect as much information as possible. A flurry of emails came in from people who either knew of or came upon the trees.
Williams has so far listed trees in 22 states plus Washington, D.C., and Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. In many cases, the trees' extraordinary pedigrees were recorded on plaques or in newspaper clippings commemorating the event. (ANI)