apple floating in low earth orbit aboard international space station

Johnny Appleseed in Space

Once upon a time in America-meets-New Space

Johnny Appleseed was a real person. And now 245 years after his birth, he’s heading to Space.

The individual we know as Johnny Appleseed was born John Chapman. John Chapman was born in 1774, two years before the Constitution was signed, and died seventy years later in 1845, the year Florida and Texas, respectively, became the 27th and 28th US States.

Johnny Appleseed cover art of An Illustrated History of the American Frontier’s Peace-Loving, Apple-Growing, Mystical Hero.
An Illustrated History of the American Frontier’s Peace-Loving, Apple-Growing, Mystical Hero

And for more than 40 years of his life — from his teens until his late-sixties — Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman planted hundreds of thousands of apple trees across the frontier territories of the United States. In Pennsylvania, in West Virginia, in Ohio, and in Indiana.

And in Canada, too, in what would become modern-day Ontario.

So Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman was a nomadic person, from the late-1700-to-mid-1800’s, who went to wild places in the frontier United States and planted hundreds of thousands of apple trees.

That’s not it, though. Far from it.

Ink drawing of Johnny Appleseed sowing grown to plant apple seeds in the wilderness from Harper’s magazine article, 1871
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Novermber 1871

It is difficult to put the importance and relevance of Johnny Appleseed in today’s terms. Here’s what we know:

  • He walked barefoot.
  • He was friendly.
  • He was kind to children and Women.
  • He was respected and welcomed by First Nation peoples and tribes.
  • He supported early Americans who were Black.
  • He was a vegetarian.
  • He lived rough.
  • He helped animals.
  • He loved plant life.
  • He practiced peace his entire life.
  • He was enterprising.
  • He was generous with his time, his apple trees, and his material goods.
  • He had a good sense of humor.
  • Kids loved him, too.
  • He loved reading.
  • He wore funny hats, sometimes, at least once maybe for children, a tin pot.
  • He did no harm to people, plants, or animals.
  • He was a community builder.
  • He encouraged education.
  • We are the United States because of him.

It’s that last one most people only kinda-sorta grasp, much less understand and appreciate.

There is no exact figure of how many acres of apple trees Johnny Appleseed planted. It is impossible to know. We do know he how many bushels of apple seeds in purchased — one record set shows 16 bushels by the time he was 27. And we know many apple seeds were in a bushel, approximately 330,000. So, what we know for certain is Johnny Appleseed planted more than six million apple seeds across frontier territories from Pennsylvania to Illinois for over forty years. Furthermore, his life-long gentle influence on the world was so constant and consistent as to overcome the near-total absence of source material about Johnny Chapman’s life and time: We have no diaries, no journals, no interviews, no illustrations or paintings of him from when he lived, and almost no report of real depth or substance while he lived. Nearly everything we know beyond the above is hearsay. And yet there is the truth.

Proud girl scouts in uniforms standing beneath new Johnny Appleseed monument with two young boys scouts off to the side, 1950
Girl Scouts with Johnny Appleseed Historical Marker, 1950's

Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of them. And then he planted some more. On the road, in the wilderness, in yards, in nurseries, all over the land that would become US America. This effort was to the advantage of the American apple as well as US America itself. To this day, it literally makes us want to eat apples and drink apple cider.

Thank you Johnny Appleseed
 We owe you quite a lot,
 For the apples that you planted
 While wearing a cooking pot

The hardy American apple that arose from those (likely Rambo varietal) apple seeds that Johnny Appleseed planted, and which in fact sprouted and grew into hundreds of thousands of acres of apple trees, enabled the beloved apple to make a home in the land and soil of US America. Johnny Appleseed very much is responsible for the rootstock that allowed apples to become synonymous with America.

An interesting thing about apple seeds, all apple seeds, is that each individual apple seed contains every variety of apple grown. They are tiny, little, spectacular roulette wheels of variety: Apples harvested from seeds produce what are called “extreme heterozygotes,” or fruits that display unpredictable characteristics often only distantly related to their parent DNA. What this means is we are not ever sure know what we get from a planted apple seed, it could be any type of apple ever. Over time growers found the most desirable varieties and have grafted them again and again to produce the most desired and best-loved apples in the world: Granny Smith, Red Delicious, McIntosh, Rome, Honeycrisp.

By planting seeds–some 10 million of them and probably significantly more than that as we have records of purchases of 16 bushels, that is more than 5 million apple seeds, by the time young Johnny Chapman was 27–apples were given the opportunity to spring up in any number of unique expressions of their genome of 37,000 strands of DNA. Farmers used the healthy trees to graft and continue to produce the varieties they loved best, a practice that continues to this day.

Additionally, whole communities became founded around Johnny Appleseed’s planting of seeds and seedlings. Communities which, like apple seeds eventually transforming into apple orchards, grew and expanded into towns and cities.

It happened like this. In order for folks to homestead frontier land, homesteaders’ had to have 50 fruit trees growing on the property. It was literally the law of the land. Trees led to food, food led to permanence. The deeding of land was so serious in those days deeds were signed by the actual President of the United States. In order to claim land and have it officially deeded, the land had to have fruit trees growing on it. Knowing this, Johnny Appleseed planted apple trees everywhere he went.

Where Johnny Appleseed didn’t plant trees he established nurseries. Then he sold, traded, and gave away apple tree seedlings — which folks used to grow on and claim land for their own.

This apple tree practice of his went on from the late-1700’s until his last days in the mid-1800’s. The man became an accepted staple of that New World.

And then Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman did something else quiet extraordinary. He died.

It was only after Johnny Appleseed died that people started to realize who he was and the vast influence of his character and actions. Gradually it dawned upon the new landlords of a now-solidly-formed US America that they had been witness to the life and work of someone exceptionally special. Someone dear, who gave their all for a purpose that at the time was thought of as odd, and then afterwards began to be seen for what it was:

Johnny Appleseed was a compassionate genius.

Paying homage to the life and work of Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman, visitors to his grave site bring apples.

Yet so vast was the impact of this gentle giant of a soul that even today–one hundred and seventy-five years since his death–schools across the nation and school kids from “Sea to Shining Sea” learn and explore and take joy from the history, legend, and legacy of Johnny Appleseed.

Classrooms of schoolkids throughout the US Midwest, and from Pennsylvania to California celebrate his work and his birthday with art, and food — apple cobbler! apple butter! apple cider! And as adults, we grow to put on Johnny Appleseed Festivals.

A full crowd walking down fairway on a sunny morning  at Johnny Appleseed Festival, Fort Wayne, IN
Johnny Appleseed Festival — A Long-Standing Fort Wayne Tradition

Thought perhaps it is only when we grow up that we may stop to wonder, wait a minute, who was Johnny Appleseed? And why is he important?

“We Want To Be Like Johnny!”

Looking at his historical figure for ourselves as grown-ups, it is then when we discover that, once upon a time in America, someone indeed quite magical was here. Someone worth never forgetting and always remembering. Perhaps now, especially now, here in the future.

Which explains why, one hundred and seventy-five years since Johnny Appleseed walked these lands, we are sending up seeds from the actual Johnny Appleseed apple trees from United States of America’s soil and out to Space.

The Johnny Appleseed in Space project began to take shape a year and half ago. It happened while doing so research on projects which students interest in space. I came upon the ESA project that had Astronaut Tim Peake carrying apple seeds from the very same apple trees whose falling apples had caught the fancy of a teenaged Isaac Newton in a way that would later lead the scientists to go on to discern the law of gravity. All of which was, to me, mind-blowing.

“Wait a minute,” I thought, “There really was an apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton? And — four hundred years later — it’s still alive??

Yes, there really is a Sir Isaac Newton apple tree. Yes, almost 400 years later, it is still alive.

As I explored all this strange new territory, I began to think about an apple story in American history that was centered on apples. Wasn’t Johnny Appleseed a real person? And if the (four hundred year old) Isaac Newton apple tree is alive, surely a (two hundred-year old) Johnny Appleseed apple tree is, too. Right?

Lo and behold, I discovered, yes. At least one apple tree planted by Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman was and is alive. And it was that sequence of events that discovery led me to Professor Pam Achenbach and the Johnny Appleseed Museum. Soon, after enthusiastically detailing my plan, both Professor Achenbach and the Museum were on board. One thing led to another, and soon the project’s biggest allies, Urbana University’s Dr Christopher Washington and ULA’s Tory Bruno, came on board, and just like that the Johnny Appleseed in Space project sprang to life.

Mike Mongo, astronaut teacher, visiting scholar, Urbana University

Sitting here today, writing this piece from my guest faculty desk at Urbana University in Urbana, OH, located in a place where Johnny Appleseed himself planted apple trees, and while I am here walking the same ground, breathing the same air, even eating the same apples, I think on how each star-lit evening I have been struck to wonder how many nights Johnny Appleseed laid in this countryside beneath these same clear, starry skies, and with his delighted spiritual nature beheld the heavens and all their wonders and imagined what indeed is possible?

I wonder, did Johnny Appleseed possibly imagine so many years ago the icons of his efforts — apple seeds —and his legacy being carried up into that starry sky?

It is my conjecture, how could this special human being not have imagined such a thing? As the Official Ambassador of Johnny Appleseed in Space, I say the answer is, without a doubt, yes he did.

Johnny Appleseed art woodcut Chris Wormell
Johnny Appleseed woodcut by Chris Wormell

How else could a single person so diligently pursue their vision filled with so much compassion, and kindness, and forethought, and generosity, as Johnny Appleseed did by planting tens of thousands of apple trees for us across an untamed and unknown frontier land all at such a time as his? Except for knowing what was to come and the part he was playing.

Somehow, some way, Johnny Appleseed knew that what he had his hand at was so much bigger than him, so much bigger than history. It was the future.

examining last remaining living apple tree planted by johnny appleseed, harvey-algeo farm, nova, oh
Me examining last known living apple tree planted by Johnny Appleseed, Harvey-Algeo Farm, Nova, OH.

It is my honor to here in 2019, two-hundred and forty-five years after his passing, to play the part of custodian of Johnny Appleseed’s vision.

The Johnny Appleseed in Space project sends authentic Johnny Appleseed apple seeds to Space and back. These Space-traveled apple seed will then be distributed to participating US schools for propagating and planting. Urbana University’s Environmental Science degree program is on board to assist schools and classrooms of young students to set up successful conditions and experiments: apple seeds from the same Johnny Appleseed tree which have not been to Space will be included for comparison and generating real science.

And sometime in the future, grown in the same manner of planting as established by their namesake, school yards across the United States will be home to a new American tradition, the very first generation of Johnny Appleseed Space apple trees.

It is with the well-wishes of the Johnny Appleseed Museum and the enthusiastic support of Ohio’s Urbana University and its CEO Dr Christopher Washington, and partnering with the very community-minded United Launch Alliance (with the blessing of none other than ULA CEO Tory Bruno himself), the Johnny Appleseed in Space project has become a reality.

Two hundred years ago an exceptional human being walked and cultivated the land and the values of a frontier nation by the name of Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman. His influence was both understated and profound. In honor of that work and in recognition of its value to our planet, we are leading the mission to bring apple seeds from the last known living apple tree planted by this person–and by extension the essence of Johnny Appleseed itself–to our human future.

We are bringing Johnny Appleseed to Space.

1950’s book sleeve of Robert Heinlein’s science fiction homage to Johnny Appleseed, Farmer in the Sky

Teachers: Want to be a participating school and receive authentic Johnny Appleseed apple seeds for your school? Like-and-share this story and sign up today using our Johnny Appleseed space seedling request form today!

Astronaut teacher Mike Mongo standing at business end of Space Shuttle Atlantis, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL

Mike Mongo is the host of Mike Mongo’s Astronaut Adventures, author of The Astronaut Instruction Manual, and Official Ambassador of Johnny Appleseed in Space.

He is a dedicated proponent of astronautics-as-a-career for students in the US and abroad. As a speaker, educator and Space STEAM advocate, Mike Mongo teaches throughout the world to encourage STEAM-directed students to pursue careers in astronautics and Space-related fields.

Learn more about his work at mikemongo.com.

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My name is Mike Mongo and I’m an astronaut teacher! Plus: NFTs; YouTube/Astronaut Adventures; author, The Astronaut Instruction Manual. https://mikemongo.com

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Mike Mongo

Mike Mongo

My name is Mike Mongo and I’m an astronaut teacher! Plus: NFTs; YouTube/Astronaut Adventures; author, The Astronaut Instruction Manual. https://mikemongo.com

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