Doctor Eugene Shoemaker 1928-1997

Finally heading for the Moon in 98... 

All I could utter when I read the 7/18/97 email note of Doctor Shoemaker’s accidental death was "damn…" It was a personal hurt for me as I know it was for others who had the opportunity to speak at length with him. I can only imagine what a terrible blow this loss is to Carolyn—my most sincere sympathy goes to her. We’ve all lost though, even those who first learned of Eugene Shoemaker through the publicity generated by Shoemaker/Levey-9. Doctor Shoemaker knew more about what was threatening in the sky and about the traces left by past impact events than anyone else I am aware of.

I don’t remember when I first began a dialog with him—it was sometime in the mid eighties—but I always called him Doctor Shoemaker, not because he would have been offended by being called Gene, but out of respect for what he had accomplished. I reserve using the accolade "doctor" in informal correspondence or conversation for researchers who have been around the Sun many more times than I, and have also brought about a new view of the world. Coincidentally, both of the individuals whom I have always addressed this way have Eugene as their first name, and both are considered ‘fathers’ of their field. Perhaps not so coincidental is the similar attitude that I observed in both Eugene Shoemaker and pioneering ecologist Eugene Odum (who was also an early supporter of defending Earth from future impact events and still is). Besides being easy to talk with, these individuals would always convey a visible love of discovery and a genuine concern for our world.

Now as I look over at the memory pad on my phone and realize that the button marked Shoemaker will never connect me to his jovial voice again tears come to my eyes.


An announcement by Brian G. Marsden:


Gene Shoemaker, renowned both as a geologist and an astronomer, and a member of the Board of Directors of The Spaceguard Foundation, was killed instantly on the afternoon of July 18, when his car collided head-on with another vehicle on an unpaved road in the Tanami Desert northwest of Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory of Australia. His wife Carolyn, who had closely collaborated with him in both his geological and his astronomical activities for many years, was injured in the accident and is in stable condition in Alice Springs Hospital.

Born in Los Angeles, California, on 1928 April 28, Eugene Merle Shoemaker graduated from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena at the age of 19. A thesis on the petrology of Precambrian metamorphic rocks earned him a master's degree only a year later, at which point he joined the United States Geological Survey, an organization with which he remained at least partly associated for the rest of his life. His first work for the USGS involved searching for uranium deposits in Colorado and Utah. While doing this, he also became interested in the moon, the possibility of traveling there, and of establishing the relative roles of asteroidal impacts and volcanic eruptions in forming the lunar craters. He then embarked on work for a Ph.D. at Princeton University, intending to continue his study of metamorphic petrology, although this was interrupted when the USGS again sent him to the field, this time leading him to an investigation of volcanic processes, for it was in the eroded vents of ancient volcanoes that the uranium deposits were often located.

Gene Shoemaker and Carolyn Spellman were married in 1951. A visit to Arizona's Meteor Crater the following year began to set Gene toward the view that both it and the lunar craters were due to asteroidal impacts. In 1956 he tried to interest the USGS in the construction of a geological map of the moon. This work was sidelined, because the national interest in the production of plutonium led him to study of the craters formed in small nuclear explosions under the Yucca Flats in Nevada and invited a comparison with Meteor Crater. It was then that he did his seminal research on the mechanics of meteorite impacts that included the discovery, with Edward Chao, of coesite, a type of silica produced in a violent impact. Awarded a master's degree in 1954, Gene Shoemaker received his doctorate from Princeton in 1960 with a thesis on Meteor Crater.

In 1961 he took a leading role in the USGS venture, in Flagstaff, Arizona, into the study of "astrogeology", the Ranger missions to the moon and the training of the astronauts. It had long been Gene's dream to go to the moon himself, but in 1963 he was diagnosed as having Addison's disease, a condition that prevented him from becoming an astronaut. When the USGS Center of Astrogeology was founded in Flagstaff in 1965, he was appointed its chief scientist and organized the geological activities planned for the lunar landings. In 1969 he returned to Caltech as a professor of geology and served for three years as chairman of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences there. Until he retired from the professorship in 1985 he divided his time between Pasadena and Flagstaff. He continued to maintain an office in the USGS Astrogeology building after his formal retirement in 1993, while at the same time taking up a position at the Lowell Observatory.

It was shortly after the 1969 arrival in Pasadena that he became interested in extending his geological knowledge of the formation and distribution of terrestrial and lunar impact craters to the study of the astronomical objects that formed them. With Eleanor Helin he developed a plan to search for such objects--the Apollo asteroids--with the 0.46-m Schmidt telescope at Palomar. This search program had its first success in July 1973 and was soon, with the help also of a number of students and of collaborations using other Schmidt telescopes, significantly augmenting the rather meager knowledge that had been accrued on these objects during the previous four decades.

Carolyn became involved with measuring images from the Palomar films in 1980, and in 1982 the Helin and the Shoemaker observing programs with the 0.46-m Schmidt went their separate ways. Carolyn proved to be very adept at scanning the Schmidt films, and this new phase of the search program had its first success with the discovery of (3199) Nefertiti, an Amor asteroid with its perihelion 0.13 astronomical unit outside the earth's orbit. In 1983 the first of the record 32 comets associated with the Shoemaker name was discovered. By the time the observing program ended, in late 1994, it had produced 40 of the--now--417 known Amor, Apollo and Aten asteroids (the orbits of this last group being smaller than that of the earth). Together with the other observing programs at Palomar, the Shoemakers have ensured that Palomar recently became and is likely to remain the leading site for the discovery of asteroids, with currently more than 13 percent of asteroids that have been numbered having been found there. A few months before the Shoemaker program was terminated came its "defining moment", with Gene receiving the thrill of his lifetime when some 20 components of one of those 32 comets were observed to crash into the planet Jupiter with astoundingly dramatic results.

Carolyn also went along on Gene's annual trips to Australia to examine impact craters, and the tragic irony that his own death should occur there as the instantaneous result of another violent impact would not have been lost on him. Gene lived as he died, active to the hilt, his enquiring mind participating in the adventure of ever learning more over an unusually large range of scientific disciplines. His many honors included the Wetherill Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1965, election to membership in the National Academy of Sciences in 1980, the Gilbert Award of the Geological Society of America in 1983 and the Kuiper Prize of the American Astronomical Society in 1984. Above all, he was truly the "father" of the science of near-earth objects, to the discovery and study of which The Spaceguard Foundation is dedicated, and his expertise and drive will be sorely missed.

Brian G. Marsden

Lunar spacecraft carries ashes, special tribute to Shoemaker


There could be no finer tribute to the legendary planetary geologist who said his greatest unfulfilled dream was to go to the moon.

Tonight, the ashes of Eugene M. Shoemaker are to be 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.

Shoemaker was best known for his work on extraterrestrial impacts and for his later collaboration with his wife, Carolyn, in the study and discovery of comets. He was long a distinguished scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Flagstaff, Ariz., where he established the agency's astrogeology branch. He was killed July 18, 1997, in a car accident in Alice Springs, Australia, during field research on impact crater geology. Carolyn Shoemaker was injured in the accident.

"I don't think Gene ever dreamed his ashes would go to the moon," Carolyn Shoemaker said shortly before leaving to witness the Lunar Prospector launch. "He would be thrilled."

The Shoemakers' children and their spouses, as well as a sister and brother-in-law, are also at Cape Canaveral for the event.

"This is so important to us," Carolyn Shoemaker said. "It brings a little closure, in a way, to our feelings. We will always know when we look at the moon, that Gene is there."

Carolyn C. Porco, a planetary scientist at The University of Arizona in Tucson, proposed and produced the tribute. She said, "The idea to give Gene Shoemaker the moon as his final resting place came to me on July 19th , the day after Gene died and the moment I read in the morning newspaper that his body would be cremated."

It may be nothing short of a minor miracle that within only weeks, Porco's inspired thought became reality. She quickly contacted the Shoemaker family and NASA officials about the proposal. Given the go-ahead, she designed and crafted the inscription in time to get it and the capsule containing Shoemaker's ashes on the lunar spacecraft before pre-flight testing.

Porco was a student of Shoemaker's when he was a professor and she was a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Field trips that Shoemaker led into Meteor Crater and the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona "are to this day among my most cherished memories," Porco said. During the 1980s, Porco and Shoemaker were members of the imaging team for Voyager, the mission to the outer planets. They also collaborated as co-investigators on a science instrument proposal for the upcoming NASA mission to Pluto.

"It was legend in the planetary science community that Gene had always wanted to go to the moon as an Apollo astronaut and study its geology firsthand," Porco said. "He said only last year, 'Not going to the moon and banging on it with my own hammer has been the biggest disappointment in life.' I felt that this was Gene's last chance to get to the moon, and that it would be a fitting and beautiful tribute to a man who was a towering figure and a pioneer in the exploration of the solar system," Porco said.

A health problem prevented Shoemaker from becoming the first geologist on the moon. Instead, he helped select and train the Apollo astronauts in lunar geology and impact cratering. He sat beside Walter Cronkite in evening newscasts, giving geologic commentary during the moon walks. He was involved in the pre-Apollo Lunar Ranger and Surveyor programs, and culminated his lunar research as science-team leader on the 1994 Clementine mission.

The Clementine mission included a deliberate search for water near the poles of the moon, Carolyn Shoemaker noted, but Clementine data did not settle the question. The search for water at the lunar poles is a key goal of Lunar Prospector, and that makes the tribute even more meaningful, she added.

Shoemaker, recipient of a 1984 honorary doctorate of science degree from The University of Arizona, won many major honors. He was awarded
the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor bestowed by the President of the United States, in 1992 by then-President George Bush.

Porco's striking thought ignited a rapid-fire e-mail exchange on July 19, a Saturday. She immediately sent a message to Tucson astronomer and UA adjunct scientist David Levy, whose quoted comment about the cremation sparked her idea. Porco told Levy, a close colleague and friend of the Shoemakers, about the proposal and asked if he would help present it to Carolyn Shoemaker.

Porco simultaneously sent an e-mail message to David Morrison of the NASA Ames Research Center, inquiring about future lunar missions. Morrison replied within hours that he had spoken with Lunar Prospector Mission Director Scott Hubbard about the idea.

Levy quickly replied he thought it was an excellent idea and agreed to ask Carolyn Shoemaker about it as soon as possible. He made his first telephone call after the accident to Carolyn Shoemaker on July 20th, when she was just out of surgery at the hospital in Alice Springs. Because there was so little time until Lunar Prospector launch, which was then scheduled for September, 1997, Levy needed to ask her about the proposed tribute during that call.

Levy confirmed with Porco that afternoon that when he told Carolyn Shoemaker of the idea to put Gene's ashes on the moon, her first reaction was, "Bless her." Carolyn Shoemaker told Levy she wanted to discuss the proposal with the family when they arrived, but that she liked the idea very much, and the more she thought about it, the better she liked it.

"From 1948 to 1963, Gene's major goal was to go to the moon," Levy said. "When Carolyn (Porco) came up with this idea, it was absolutely the most wonderful thing she could have done."

Levy and the Shoemakers together in 1993 discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the spectacular comet that became unique in the history of science when it was torn apart by and and crashed into Jupiter in 1994. Levy has started work on Gene Shoemaker's biography, which will be published by Princeton University Press.

Ten days after the accident, Porco had unofficial approval for the proposal from NASA administrators.

By the end of August, a Phoenix firm, Universal Laser Systems, had laser-engraved Porco's inscription design on the foil. She carried the engraved foil with her to Flagstaff in late August, where she and the members of the Shoemaker family placed the ashes in the capsule on the grounds of the Shoemaker residence, in sight of the San Francisco Peaks. From there, Porco flew the next day to NASA Ames Research Center where she delivered the special payload to Hubbard -- just in time for installation before the spacecraft was scheduled for spin-balancing.

Porco said she chose the Shakespeare passage for the inscription because it expresses the love and devotion the Shoemakers had for each other, and because it describes "what will now come to pass, that every moon-lit sky will forever be made more beautiful by Gene's inspiring presence."

She also chose for inscription a spectacular CCD image of Comet Hale-Bopp, taken on April 14, 1997, with an 85mm camera lens by Steve Larson of the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Comet Hale-Bopp blazed in Earth's sky in the spring of the year that Shoemaker died, and it also was the last comet that the Shoemakers observed together, Porco noted.

Porco also wanted to include the best photo of Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, where Shoemaker had trained the Apollo astronauts. At Carolyn Shoemaker's suggestion, Porco selected Gene Shoemaker's favorite photo of the great crater, which shows the volcanic San Francisco Peaks and several other important geologic features. It was taken by David Roddy and Karl Zeller of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff.

Lunar Prospector was scheduled for launch during a 4-minute window that began at 8:31 p.m. EST, or 6:31 p.m. MST, Jan. 5. Launch is now set for 9:28 EST, 7:28 MST, Jan. 6. After a 105-hour cruise to the moon, the spacecraft will be placed in lunar orbit and begin a one-year mapping mission from 63 miles above the lunar surface. When its battery fails at the end of its lifetime, an estimated 18 months or more from now, Lunar Prospector and its special payload will crash on the moon.

News Services
University of Arizona

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