Some love stories are forever, they are beyond the realms of time and space. This holds true for the life of late American geologist, Eugene Merle Shoemaker. His life and love story have been made unique in the most spectacular way.
There could be no finer tribute to the legendary planetary geologist who said his greatest unfulfilled dream was to go to the moon. Colleagues of a late researcher noted for his expertise on outer-space collisions came up with an astronomical way to honor his memory. A vial carrying an ounce of Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes slammed into a moon crater at 3,800 mph, riding shotgun along NASA’s Lunar Prospector science craft.
Shoemaker, although lesser known, was one of the greatest scientists of his time. His astronomical accomplishments were celebrated by NASA after his death in 1997 in the most inspiring way.
Shoemaker and his wife Carolyn S Shoemaker became popular after they discovered a comet that was crashing into Jupiter in July 1992. In fact, Shoemaker was instrumental in introducing a new field of study – Astro-geology.
To date, the late scientist Eugene Shoemaker is still the only person whose remains have been sent to the Moon. Even casual stargazers are likely to recognize Shoemaker’s name from the famed Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (which had broken into fragments) that impacted Jupiter in 1994. The comet, which Shoemaker discovered with his wife Carolyn, alongside David Levy, was remarkable because it marked the first time humans were able to witness a first-hand planetary collision. The crash got so much press attention that a small town in Wyoming set up an intergalactic landing strip to welcome any potential refugees from Jupiter, and Shoemaker became a household name.
“He is the very first human inhabitant of Earth to be laid to rest on another celestial body,” said Carolyn Porco, a University of Arizona professor and Shoemaker’s colleague in NASA’s Voyager missions. “That’s very significant because it says we have arrived at our place in the solar system, the solar system is our own and it’s beckoning us.”
It was Porco who spearheaded the tribute effort and designed an epigraph that accompanies the ashes of Shoemaker, who died two years ago in a car crash while crater-hunting in Australia.
The ashes of Eugene M. Shoemaker was launched in a memorial capsule aboard Lunar Prospector to the moon. The polycarbonate capsule, one-and-three-quarters inches long and seventh-tenths inch in diameter, is carried in a vacuum-sealed, flight-tested aluminum sleeve mounted deep inside the spacecraft.
Around the capsule is wrapped a piece of brass foil inscribed with an image of a Comet Hale-Bopp, an image of Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, and a passage from William Shakespeare’s enduring love story, “Romeo and Juliet”:
And, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
The Princeton University alumni, who wanted to travel to the moon, had to sacrifice his aspiration after he was diagnosed with Addison’s disease. However, the Caltech alumni used his knowledge and skills to train other astronauts who were to embark on space missions.
Towards his later years, the geologist spent most of his time looking for rare impact craters around the world. In one of his expeditions, on July 18, 1997, Shoemaker was in a head-on car collision in near Alice Springs in Australia. While the 69-year-old explorer died, Carolyn suffered injuries following the crash.
It is believed that around the same time NASA was planning to launch its Lunar Prospector. Shoemaker’s wife and a former student proposed the idea of sending his ashes along with the prospector. NASA approved the proposal making Shoemaker the first human to have a grave on the Moon.
Shoemaker enjoyed a celebrated career combining his main discipline of geology with more astronomical applications, helping to create the field of planetary science. He studied a number of craters here on Earth, and in the early 1960s, he founded the Astrogeology Research Program within the United States Geological Survey. Shoemaker used his knowledge to train a number of Apollo mission astronauts about what they could expect to find on the surface of the Moon, in terms of terrain.