A very personal experience with Lunar Lumber

By Jim Heavey

As the Apollo 14 lander rested on the surface of the moon in 1971 and Alan Shepard hit a couple of golf balls to test the effect of the moon’s reduced gravity on his driving distance, about 500 tree seeds took 34 revolutions around the moon with astronaut Stuart Roosa in the command module. The seeds were part of an experiment by NASA and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to see if seeds subjected to zero gravity and harsh radiation would germinate back on earth. Though there were a few seed casualties, most of them did become saplings, and some matured into “moon wood.” 

One of those saplings was transplanted at Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Center in June of 1976 to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. That sycamore tree grew well for about 40 years until Hurricane Irma destroyed it in September of 2017. 

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This is the original sycamore as it sat on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center. The plaque signifies it as being a Moon Wood tree.

Most of the tree was cut up to be mulched and would have been forever lost were it not for Scott G. Phillips, a member of the Huntsville (Alabama) Space Shuttle team. He felt that the tree might be a way to preserve the legacy of the Apollo program and NASA. With the permission of NASA and the USFS, Phillips took possession of a 30" section of the tree.  In April 2019, Scott "Shuttleman" Phillips brought that log to Virginia to the shop of Alex Snodgrass. 

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The log arrived strapped to the inside of Scott's van along with the plaque to be part of the ceremony at the Moon Tree Garden at Kennedy Space Center.

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The plaque commemorates this special tree and its extraterrestrial origins and sat near the tree until the tree's demise at the hands of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Alex, a bandsaw expert and professional woodworker from Carter Company, used a huge 24" Powermatic bandsaw to cut the log into 5/4 slabs. Ron Herman, a third-generation master housewright and renowned wood authority was on hand to lay out the cuts to highlight the best figure and the least waste in this precious log, in spite of the spalting that occurred during its time in storage. Chuck Bender, a master period furniture maker, joined the team to advise Scott on the best way to use those cuts for future woodworking projects. Chuck also snapped images of the process to be included with the history of this "Moon Wood."I was present to gather information for this story in WOOD® magazine. Every piece of this log was saved, even the saw dust! 

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It took quite a bit of careful preparation to steady this large and irregularly shaped log for its initial trip through the saw.

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We may have had a smile on our faces but the size of this very special log made us all a bit nervous about how this long awaited cutting would go.

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That first slab cut was definitely the most nerve wracking but would only serve to heighten the prospects of what succeeding pieces would look like.

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I decided to add a little of my own DNA to a piece of wood with its own otherworldly genetic markers.

With the goal of preserving the legacy of this material, everyone present was given a piece and each of us felt the weight of this obligation.

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We were all very surprised when Scott offered to give us each a piece. Seen to my left are Ron Herman, Alex Snodgrass, Scott "Shuttleman" Phillips and Chuck Bender.

As the lead person in this group, Scott took possession of the bulk of the material and he has already put some to great use. A large section of the stock was used to create a memorial to honor Astronaut Scott Roosa. 

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This plaque has been "repurposed" to be a part of the tribute to Astronaut Stuart Roosa's involvement in the Moon Tree legacy.

His daughter, Rosemary Roosa,  accepted the award on behalf of her father. It will be part of the Moon Tree Garden at the Kennedy Space Center and join the 12 new trees planted there to symbolize the 12 men who walked on the moon.

Pieces were sent to the famous intarsia artist and author, Judy Gale Roberts, to be part of her art piece "For All Mankind." A product of over 1300 pieces of wood, almost 150 hours of her design time and 1000 shop hours went into the construction. The results are stunning and she certainly captured the spirit of this moment in history. This amazing artwork will greet visitors to the Kennedy Space Center for years to come. Here is a link with more details about the creation of this spectacular artwork.

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Wood from the Moon Tree log were used in this awe-inspiring work, measuring 56x53". Judy Gale Roberts found these pieces to be the perfect fit for the banner, plaque and flag pole.

Scott G. Phillips, an avid guitar player, commissioned the C.F. Martin Guitar Company to create a tribute to the space program. One of the two exquisite instruments they created will be part of the permanent display at the US Space and Rocket Center. Pieces of the moon wood were incorporated at the center of the guitar in the shape of a moon. A number of depictions and applied elements showcase the history of the Apollo missions and commemorate each of them. The second guitar will be part of the permanent display at the Martin headquarters. 

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The Lunar Lander image is seen here. Just to the right is a portion of the Moon Wood used to surround the sound hole of this special Martin guitar.

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An extensive use of Mother of Pearl is visible on this guitar. Even the date of the original lunar landing is highlighted with it.

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Another piece of this coveted Moon Wood was engraved and placed inside this guitar.

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Each of the Apollo missions was remembered with pins placed on the guitar. A special remembrance was made of the tragic accident of Apollo 1 which took the lives of Astronauts Grissom, Chaffee, and White.

Projects from other craftsmen are in the works as well. Ron Herman will take parts of his wood to analyze the structure of the sycamore and will use it as part of his lecture series at woodworking shows and  the educational seminars he gives throughout the year. 

Chuck Bender's talents are nearly ethereal and I can only guess what he will do with something with as much history as these pieces hold.

Alex has taken small pieces of his stock to have commemorative pens made to thank those who supplied the tools he used to cut the wood. As I mentioned, not even the smallest pieces were wasted. He and I have discussed the possibility of collaborating to create projects befitting this very special stock. 

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Each shuttle crew designs a unique patch to commemorate their mission. This is the patch for Apollo 14 and the crew of astronauts Shepard, Mitchell and Roosa.

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Scott G. Phillips is also an accomplished woodworker. One of his many signature pieces is this shuttle recreation. He has made hundreds and many astronauts and those associated with the shuttle program have one.

I will surely donate a piece to WOOD magazine, where this “Moon Wood” will be used in a manner befitting its otherworldly heritage.

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Not only is this a piece of Moon Wood, the figure and character of my special "found" wood is just spectacular.

As for me, I have to admit being a bit intimidated by the enormous pressure to create something worthy of this exceptional, unique piece of “found" wood. I've been faced with this type of decision in the past.  

My dad planted a Russian Olive tree in the back yard a few years before he died when I was in my early teens. Truth be told, it was an awful tree with large sharp thorns but very easy to climb. All my brothers and sisters have memories of the scrapes and slivers this tree would give them. I pleaded with my mother in my later years to cut that tree down before one of us would be seriously hurt. She said that she just couldn't because that was dad's tree and he saw it whenever he looked down on us. If he actually did, I do think that the sight of his crying bloodied kids would have convinced him to send her a sign. 

Well, that sign turned out to be a near tornadic storm which destroyed that rotted tree and finally ended its scourge. My mom was heartbroken. 

I took a supply of that "found" wood and air dried it. The following year, I turned an ornament for her Christmas tree. Although the wood's natural color was drab, with a bright finish it looked pretty good and she was overwhelmed when I told her where that wood had come from. It always had a prominent place on that tree much to the chagrin of my other woodworking brothers. This helped me cement my place as her favorite. There may have been other places to find a piece of Russian Olive but none would have come from "Dad's" tree. 

As with my Dad's tree, a piece of sycamore can be purchased at any quality woodworking supply store but it will never be from that historically special tree. For now, almost two board feet of Moon Wood sits prominently in my shop. When I look at it I'm reminded about its history and what we have asked it to stand for. I guess that I'm waiting for a sign. l know it will come.

Post Script

As a result of our work with Scott "Shuttleman" Phillips in April of 2019, I couldn't have felt more honored to attend the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing as a guest of NASA at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville Alabama on July 20, 2019.

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Located in Huntsville, AL, the Rocket Center played a pivotal role in the design and development of the Saturn V rocket and components of the shuttle program. It is also home to Space Camp.

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The enormity of the shuttle with the external tank and booster rockets is on full display on the Rocket Center grounds. Watching visitors walking under and around it gives a better perspective of this amazing scientific achievement.

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Scott "Shuttleman" Phillips is a 33 year veteran of the shuttle program and an inspirational speaker on the history and merits of the NASA program.

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