Article written by Bethany Beebe, Advanced Master Gardener
Very rarely, here in Indiana, do we think of plants achieving their greatest heights in December. For one sycamore tree at Fox Island, December 1988 was the highest point it will achieve in life. The tree was part of a project marking the 75th anniversary of Extension, riding as a seed in one of four packets aboard the space shuttle ATLANTIS, Natalie Haley, Park and Education Manager at Fox Island County Park said, with the help of notes from her predecessor Ron Zartman. Each county in Indiana received such a tree, a project whose brainchild was U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jerry L. Ross, Crown Pointe, Indiana native and astronaut.
“I grew up out in the countryside in Lake County, Indiana,” Ross said. “I loved the freedom to roam over fields, along streams, through forested areas, and along ponds. I enjoyed seeing animals, big and small, and watching the cycles of the season. My childhood was idyllic, and that experience helped me to more fully appreciate the beauty of God’s creation we call earth while circling the globe at five miles per second.”
Ross had seen other seeds go to space. Luckily for the state of Indiana, Ross decided to follow suit. “I thought that was a good idea and an excellent way for me to thank 4-H for its role in helping me become an astronaut,” he said.
The good idea was the seed from which the project grew. “I contacted my friend Dr. Ed Frickey in the Indiana State 4-H Office…and he helped me arrange to have the seeds collected and provided in a timely manner for my launch,” Ross said. Before Frickey delivered the saplings to each county, a good excuse to use his airplane, Ross teased, Dr. Walt Beineke worked on this mission to plant. Beineke controlled the seed to sapling success story in West Lafayette.
Haley said Allen County’s space tree was planted by Girl Scouts on the north side of the nature center. In other counties, Ross said, fairgrounds and courthouse grounds house their trees. Haley said the tree is an Eastern Sycamore (American Sycamore). She reports similar grow throughout the park, ideal for its low, wet soils that flood periodically.
While the sycamore may be common to the park, it is anything but common for trees to come with a special certificate. The document says, “These tree seeds were flown aboard the United States Space Shuttle, ATLANTIS, December 2, 1988 to December 6, 1988, for Indiana County 4-H clubs. Launching from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, ATLANTIS completed 68 orbits, traveling 1.8 million miles before landing on the Rogers Dry Lake Bed, Edwards Air Force Base, California. These seeds were carried into space by former Hoosier Lt. Col. Jerry R. Ross, USAF Mission Specialist.”
Now retired, Ross said he enjoys freedom in his schedule, researching genealogy, and travelling with his wife, Karen.
If you are interested in visiting the tree it is located at Fox Island County Park. The coordinates of the tree are: 41°01'09.2"N 85°14'21.6"W.
Space Tree photos by Bethany Beebe and Terri Theisen taken onsite at Fox Island.