He trained astronauts and founded a new science. Born on April 28, 1928, Eugene "Gene" Shoemaker was one of the 20th century's great minds. His work on impact craters affected everything from NASA's Apollo missions to the dinosaur extinction debate. For his contributions to human knowledge, he was awarded the National Medal of Science by then-president George H.W. Bush in 1992.
A different honor eluded him. Shoemaker studied the moon from afar, but he often dreamed of climbing into a spacesuit and walking on its surface. Sadly, he never got the chance; Addison's disease crushed his hopes of becoming an astronaut.
But in 1997, some of his ashes were laid to rest near the moon's southern pole. That made him the first — and to date, the only — person to ever receive a lunar burial.
It was a poignant epilogue to the man's career. Shoemaker was a geologist by training and craters were one of his great passions. Shoemaker helped confirm that the famous 570-foot-deep (173-meter) Barringer Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona was made by an asteroid impact.
He also championed the hypothesis that another such impact killed the last non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago. And by mapping some of the craters on our moon, he revolutionized our understanding of its geology.
In 1961, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) set up an Astrogeology Research Program. Shoemaker — often considered the founding father of astrogeology — was chosen to lead it. NASA enlisted his services, too. Shoemaker joined future Apollo astronauts on field trips to Barringer Crater and other sites, where he trained them to collect rock samples.
His work was instrumental to the discovery of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet, which struck Jupiter in 1994. One of the comet's co-discoverers was Eugene's wife — and fellow scientist — Carolyn. On July 18, 1997, the couple was involved in a tragic car accident. Though Carolyn survived, Eugene was killed.
The very next day, Shoemaker's former student Carolyn Porco devised a fitting tribute. A planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, Porco learned that her mentor was going to be cremated. So she spearheaded an effort to put 1 ounce (28 grams) of his ashes aboard NASA's Lunar Prospector Spacecraft.
A polycarbonate urn capsule was built by Celestis, the same company that sent the ashes of "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry into orbit. Wrapped around Shoemaker's capsule was brass foil ribbon bearing a picture of the Barringer Crater and a star-themed quote from "Romeo & Juliet."
With the precious cargo in tow, the spacecraft launched out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Jan. 6, 1998. More than a year later, the vessel (whose objective had been to hunt for water) was deliberately crashed near the lunar south pole. Shoemaker's ashes went down with it.
Celestis hopes to inter other human remains on the moon at some point. But for the moment, Shoemaker has the place to himself. "It brings a little closure, in a way, to our feelings," Carolyn Shoemaker said in a 1998 press release of her husband's otherworldly burial. "We will always know when we look at the moon, that Gene is there."
Originally Published: Apr 26, 2019