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Powerhouse Space Seeds

Moon Tree

 Winter/Spring 20-21

If you’ve walked along Durango’s famed river trail lately, you may have noticed a new addition to the trail’s scenery. Adjacent to The Powerhouse sits a young American Sycamore tree. For now, the small tree looks rather nondescript, but that will change once a new plaque is installed. No matter how large the tree eventually grows to be, the story of how it came to be planted along the banks of the Animas River will always be much bigger.

The tale begins in 1933 with the birth of Stuart Roosa. Roosa was born in Durango, and was raised in rural Oklahoma, in a home without running water. Despite his humble beginnings, he became an aeronautical engineer, a smokejumper, an Air Force pilot, a test pilot, and eventually a NASA astronaut who was a member of the Apollo space program. Although he moved away at a young age, Roosa made extended visits to Durango later in life and always loved the West. 

As a NASA astronaut, Roosa was chosen to be the command module pilot for the Apollo 14 mission. He and fellow astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell left Earth on January 31, 1971. The rocket they left on would eventually propel them to the moon. 

Shepard and Mitchell would fly the lunar module to the moon’s surface, leaving Roosa alone in the command module, orbiting the moon for 33 hours. In orbit, Roosa conducted experiments and scouted potential landing sites on the moon’s surface while he waited for his fellow crew members to return. But he also had some company from back home as he traveled around the moon: 500 seeds from loblolly pine, sweet gum, sycamore, redwood, and Douglas fir trees. 

The seeds were part of a joint project between Roosa and the United States Forest Service, and they were planted as part of America’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. Today they are known as “Moon Trees,” and their eventual locations range from such places as a junior high school in Flagstaff, Arizona, to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

Roosa’s story, and his connection to southwest Colorado, is a piece of Durango history that had been mostly forgotten. It was uncovered when a local student was doing a project on Durango’s parks. He and his teacher began digging into the name behind Roosa Park, a small patch of green space on the corner of El Paso Street and Roosa Avenue near the Animas River, and discovered the story of Durango’s very own homegrown astronaut. 

This revelation made its way to Durango’s Powerhouse Science Center, and an idea started to form. According to Executive Director Jeff Susor, “The Powerhouse’s mission is to turn kids and families onto science as a way of thinking and doing, bringing the biggest world of curiosity and exploration to Durango as possible.”

With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 14 coming in January 2021, Susor and his team felt like Roosa’s connection to the Four Corners was a wonderful opportunity to teach Durango’s children not only about the history of the Apollo program, but also current lunar science. The planting of the American Sycamore on the river trail served as the kickoff to a nine-month celebration that’s designed to do just that. One of Roosa’s trees landed on the campus of Mississippi State University, and from it came what is now Durango’s own Moon Tree. Roosa’s daughter started a second round of plantings a few years ago, and helped get the tree to Durango.

With the COVID-19 pandemic going on, Susor wanted to find new ways to reach the area’s youth. “When we look at the COVID era, it’s about trying to be as creative as possible to reach kids when the normal routine of coming here to The Powerhouse and doing hands-on playing to learn is impossible. We want to be as relevant as possible to kids in the middle of all of this,” said Susor. By focusing on the moon, children will be able to stay connected with what they’re studying virtually by literally looking up at the night sky. 

The celebration will also include a series of lectures by people involved with the space program and aerospace industry, as well as artifacts from the Apollo program that will be shipped to Durango by the Johnson Space Center.

While the learning opportunities will be plentiful, the most important lesson for the area’s youth might lie in Roosa’s own story. He grew up in a rural area, and from a young age he told all who would listen that he wanted to be a pilot. Believing his dreams to be too big, people in his small Oklahoma town told him to shoot for a more attainable goal, like being a mechanic. Despite their discouragement, Stuart Roosa never gave up. In the end he not only piloted many airplanes, but he also flew a spacecraft around the moon. 

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