A very personal experience with Lunar Lumber
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I will surely donate a piece to WOOD magazine, where this “Moon Wood” will be used in a manner befitting its otherworldly heritage.
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.
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.