Eugene Shoemaker is the only man on the moon. It’s his birthday, he would be 87 today, but he won’t know it. Shoemaker has been dead for almost twenty years. His ashes have been on the moon since 1997.
Unless you are a bit of a space junkie, you likely never heard of Shoemaker. He taught geology to Apollo astronauts (so they’d know which moon rocks to bring home) and, along with his wife Carolyn and their friend David Levy, he co-discovered the Shoemaker-Levy comet that spectacularly plunged into Jupiter back in 1994, to the great delight of amateur stargazers with scopes focused on the red planet. It was the first observed celestial impact and it informed us greatly about what happens when comets crash into Jupiters.
Shoemaker’s father was a Nebraska farmer; his mother taught school. Shoemaker earned his unusual astrogeology PhD at Princeton in 1960 and the next year he founded the Astrogeology Research Program for the U.S. Geological Survey. Within a couple of years he caught the attention of Scientific American and wrote a piece (The Geology of the Moon) for them in 1964. It included this justification for the study of astrogeology:
“We expect that the study of lunar geology will help to answer some longstanding questions about the early evolution of the earth. The moon and the earth are essentially a two-planet system, and the two bodies are probably closely related in origin. In this connection the moon is of special interest because its surface has not been subjected to the erosion by running water that has helped to shape the earth’s surface.”
– Shoemaker, 1964
In Arizona, Gene Shoemaker led astronauts around Meteor Crater and Sunset Crater, giving the space cadets some crater experience. During the lunar Apollo missions, he moonlighted on the air with Walter Cronkite’s CBS news coverage, giving stellar commentary.
Shoemaker was a relent- less investigator. He traveled the world looking for pieces of other worlds – meteorites that might cede clues about the stony landscapes that reside overhead.
He also restlessly pursued craters on the Earth – such impacts led to his analysis of microscopically unique shocked quartz (coesite) and the craters helped him understand the mechanics and products of impact collisions. It was a trip to Australia at age 69 that found him driving a car across the desert northwest of Alice Springs with his wife. He was seeking yet another crater to examine. On a forlorn stretch of a rutted trail, he rambled along at 80 kilometres an hour, hugging the safe smooth center of the road. He met another vehicle, approaching from the opposite direction. The Australian driver approaching him pulled hard to the left to miss Shoemaker’s car. Unfortunately, Eugene Shoemaker was an American driver – at the same instant, he veered sharply right to avoid a collision, which caused him to crash head-on into the other vehicle. He died; his wife was badly injured.
Almost exactly two years later, on July 31, 1999, his ashes were carried to the moon by the Lunar Prospector space probe. Shoemaker is the only person whose ashes have been placed on the moon – he remains our only man on the moon.