Scattering the ashes of a deceased loved one into the air or throwing them into the water is a beautiful way to say goodbye and pay a posthumous tribute to him or her. However, for some time now, this has been restricted in some countries by the authorities due to the fact that some uncivilized people abandon the funeral urn without further ado, with the aggravating circumstance that they are often made of non-biodegradable materials. For Eugene Shoemaker’s remains there was no such problem; his ashes were scattered across the Moon.

The truth is that if we had to make a selection of appropriate people to rest ad aeternam in our satellite, Shoemaker would be one of them. He was an American, from Los Angeles, the city where he was born in 1928.

As a child, he became interested in geology, visiting the Buffalo Museum of Education and taking courses on the subject, which led him to train as a lapidary, that is, a cutter of gems and precious stones.

Lunar Prospector, the probe that transported Shoemaker’s ashes to the moon/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

He was intellectually precocious – he also played the violin – so, after finishing high school in three years, he entered college at sixteen. To be exact, he entered Caltech, short for the California Institute of Technology, a prestigious private institution located in Pasadena and dedicated to the study of natural sciences and engineering that had recently become a university center. It was 1944 and by 1948 he had his bachelor’s degree, enrolling in the doctoral course at Princeton.

There he had a fellow student named Richard Spellman whose sister, Carolyn, he began dating. She had a degree in History and Politics but, in addition, had taken a course in geology, so, although she found the subject rather boring, they had a common interest.

The relationship was long distance, epistolary, more than anything else, given the distances that separated them (Princeton is in New Jersey and she lived in Chico, California) but they still married in the summer of 1951.

Eugene’s wife Carolyn in 1986./Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

They had three children and Carolyn devoted herself to caring for them, as the father often worked away. Years later, when they grew up, she wanted to return to the job market but as she was not attracted to teaching -which she had tried before her marriage-, her husband suggested that she study astronomy and join his team. She did so and would become a reputable professional in that specialty.

In the meantime, Eugene, who had been hired in 1950 by the USGS (United States Geological Survey) to look for uranium deposits in Utah and Colorado, realized that these deposits were usually in volcano craters, so he began to investigate them in Arizona.

He paid special attention to the Barringer Crater, so called because it was the geologist of that name who suggested in 1903 that its origin was not the result of an eruption of volcanic steam, as the scientific community maintained until then, but of the impact of a meteoroid.

Barringer crater/Image: Shane Torgerson on Wikimedia Commons

The nature of these phenomena would be decisive in Shoemaker’s work, for in 1960 he embarked precisely on a doctoral thesis on the Barringer Crater, noting that it had similar characteristics to two others produced by atomic tests in the Nevada desert corresponding to operations Buster-Jangle (1951) and Teapot Ess (1955).

In fact, that same year he found coesite in the crater and extended his findings of coesite in the Nördlingen Ries, one of the best preserved meteorite impact craters on Earth.

Coesite is a type of quartz originated by a temperature and pressure so extremely high that a volcano lacks sufficient strength for it and suevite is a molten rock by impact, all of which showed that the origin of the Barringer was not an eruption but a meteorite that hit our planet at that point a long time ago (today it is believed to be in the Pleistocene, about 50,000 years ago).

Shoemaker training astronautas in Brooks Camp/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Thus began the second part of Shoemaker’s scientific work. Since until then it was thought that craters were due only to extinct volcanoes, including those on the Moon, the satellite became his object of study. Thus, he began to map its surface with the aim of making the first lunar geological map. To this end, he founded the Astrogeology Research Program, with which he developed a new field of research, astrogeology, which showed that all the craters on the Moon were impact craters.

Since he was already a specialist, he participated in the Lunar Ranger missions (the first American lunar missions in the 1960s), collaborated in the training of the Apollo astronauts in the Barringer and Sunset craters (his mission was to reach the Moon and, in fact, he was the first scientist designated to set foot on it, but he was excluded because he suffered from Addison’s disease, an adrenal gland disorder, so he had to content himself with commenting on television the flights of the Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 missions) and was the director of lunar geology on the Apollo 11, Apollo 12 and Apollo 13 missions.

In 1969, with the Moon conquered and back at Caltech, Shoemaker embarked on another project: the systematic search for asteroids crossing the Earth’s orbit. Thus he discovered several groups of them that were baptized with the generic name of Apollo. It was then that his wife joined the team from the Lowell Observatory. Thanks to this work Shoemaker enunciated that sudden geological changes can be due to asteroids and that the fall of these is a relatively frequent phenomenon on a geological scale.

Hubble telescope image showing the southern hemisphere of Jupiter with the succession of impacts from comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (the brown spots)./Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

He also discovered comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, of extraordinary value as the first to be observed during its collision with Jupiter in July 1994. By then, the geologist had already won the National Medal of Science, persisting in his worldwide search for unknown impact craters. Ironically, it was precisely an impact – albeit of a different kind – that ended his life on June 18, 1997.

It happened in a car accident on the Tanami Track road in Alice Springs, Australia, during one of these trips. It was a head-on collision in which he was killed instantly and his wife was seriously injured. Then came the time for posthumous honors; among other things, a crater on the Moon and another on Mars, an asteroid and a space probe were named after him.

However, there is no doubt that the greatest compliment that could be paid to him consisted in what we mentioned at the beginning. In 1998, part of his ashes were taken to the Moon by the Lunar Prospector, a space microprobe of only 158 kilos (296 including fuel) destined to study the surface of the satellite. They were in a capsule wrapped in bronze with images of the Hale-Bopp comet (the last one Shoemaker observed with his wife before the accident), the Barringer Crater and some moving verses from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which came as a perfect fit:

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


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 25, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Eugene Shoemaker, la única persona cuyos restos reposan en la Luna

Sources

Shoemaker by Levy. The Man Who Made an Impact (David H. Levy)/Eugene Shoemaker (1928.1997) (Susan W. Kieffer)/Introduction to Planetary Science. The Geological Perspective (Gunter Faure y Teresa M. Mensing)/Dynamics of Comets and Asteroids and Their Role in Earth History (VVAA)/Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences. From Heresy to Truth (James Lawrence Powell)/Wikipedia


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