'Space tree' serves as reminder to protect the earth

Exposing kids to a variety of experiences can help better direct their future. This lesson couldn’t be any truer for Jerry Ross. “The beauty of the earth is inspiring,” he said. As a child he was enrolled in 4-H. “It was one of those organizations I felt that helped me as a young person to mature and develop and to learn responsibilities and to learn to stick to something I committed to.”

His 4-H foundation helped launch his stellar career as an adult. Ross grew up in Crown Point, is a graduate of Purdue University, a retired Air Force officer and a retired NASA astronaut. Col. Ross is a veteran of seven U.S. Space Shuttle missions and set the individual world record for the most spaceflights flown.

He first launched into space in 1985. “It certainly must have given God a satisfaction to look down on his creation and see how peaceful and beautiful it looks. At the same time, when you are flying around the Earth every 90 minutes, we get the new impression that the Earth is limited in size. It is not as big as we seem to think it is,” Ross said.

For a mission, NASA allows each astronaut a very limited number of items per flight that they can take into space for some organization. Normally it is an item like a school banner or baseball. Post flight, the items are returned to the organization. “I always tried to fly items for organizations that had made a difference in my life and helped me to get to where I ultimately was able to fly into space,” Ross said.

On Dec. 2, 1988, on flight STS 27, Ross did just that. “You can see the fragility of the atmosphere when looking at the thin blue fuzziness around the Earth. That is our atmosphere and we know that is what keeps everybody and thing on the surface of the earth alive,” he said.

To this day and for many future generations, his experience with 4-H continues to grow throughout the State of Indiana. Ross decided one of the items he would take into space in 1988 would be tree seeds. He took the state tree of Indiana, the tulip poplar, and the Sycamore, because it is ubiquitous through the state. He had the seeds harvested before the flight. “I had them stowed on the orbiter. They flew for more than four days in space,” Ross said. Upon arriving back from the 1.8-million-mile mission, the seeds were later germinated and grown to a transplantable state and then delivered to all 92 county Purdue Extension offices in 1989. This coincided with Purdue Extension’s 75th Anniversary.

“You look back on Earth from the blackness of space and there aren’t too many places that look very inviting. This is it. This is what we got, so we need to protect it,” Ross said.

Green and Growing

Twenty-five years later there is renewed energy around the tulip poplar “Space Tree” planted in Vigo County near the southeast corner of the jail, adjacent to the courthouse. Former Vigo County Extension Agent Max Miller had the honor of planting the tree. “The reason we didn’t have a big celebration back then was because of the worry of someone stealing it in the middle of the night,” Miller said.

Art Spaces is currently working on a plan to create a path connecting downtown Terre Haute to the River. The space tree happens to be along the way. Through the Turn to the River planning process, Miller has said “look out for that tree,” reminding people of the importance of it. “I find it very touching and important to capture these kinds of unique stories. To have the tree just sitting there without anyone aware of the story seems unfortunate. It is a Vigo County story for people to discover. Jerry Ross took the time and effort to take that seed on an amazing journey, and we should memorialize that,” Director of Art Spaces Mary Kramer said.

Ross would like to see people thinking of collecting seeds from these trees to start a whole new generation of trees that can be planted around the state of Indiana. “I think anybody who flies in space can’t help but be an environmentalist. I feel strongly about being able to try to protect our earth. It is the only place we got” Ross said. Planting trees is a wonderful way to help protect our planet, for they clean the air we breathe and purify the water we drink.

Ross goes into more detail about the space tree seeds in his new book, “Becoming a Spacewalker: My Journey to the Stars.” This fall, his book was revised to integrate STEM related content to be integrated into a classroom lesson plan.


Submitted by Jane Santucci

Blog NewsMargaret Stout