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Geologist Eugene Shoemaker is the only person whose ashes have been dispersed on the Moon: Read how NASA paid tribute to a scientist

In a proud moment for Indians, the country is set to achieve a historic feat in accomplishing its Lunar ambitions as the Chandrayan 3 will attempt a soft landing on the moon’s surface on August 23. As the whole nation and the world’s eyes are set to witness the Indian space agency add another feather to its cap, did you know about a man who was ‘buried’ on the moon?

Dr Eugene Shoemaker, a revolutionary geologist who is known and remembered for his extraordinary contribution in the field of planetary science became the first and the only person in the world whose ashes were scattered on the moon as a tribute. Shoemaker, who once called himself a science historian was also the founder of Astrogeology.

Eugene Merle Shoemaker, who was born on April 28, 1928, in Los Angeles, California, graduated from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena at the age of 19.

Soon after receiving his master’s degree for a thesis on the petrology of Precambrian metamorphic rocks, he joined the United States Geological Survey (USGS), where he continued to be somewhat affiliated for the remainder of his life. His initial task for the USGS was to scour Colorado and Utah for uranium reserves. He also developed an interest in the moon, the prospect of reaching there, and determining the relative contributions of volcanic eruptions and asteroidal impacts to the formation of lunar craters.

Ending the debate around Barringer Meteor Crater

Shoemaker’s dissertation at Princeton University for his Ph.D., which he earned in 1960, focused on the impact dynamics of Arizona’s Meteor Crater also called the Barringer Crater.

The Barringer Meteorite Crater rises 150 feet above the surrounding Arizona desert. It was formerly known as Coon Butte or Coon Mountain. The impact crater is 570 feet deep and about a mile broad. Two opposing theories were most frequently put forth by geologists to explain geologic occurrences. The first theory’s proponents thought that volcanic activity deep underground generated an explosion of superheated steam that caused the crater in Arizona. Others supported the theory that a massive meteorite’s impact had caused the crater’s formation.

Gilbert Karl Grove, a chief geologist at USGS in the 1890s conducted thorough investigations at the crater site and concluded that the crater was formed due to a steam explosion. 

Barringer Meteor crater in Arizona (Image source: Astronomy Magazine)

Interestingly, in 1902, Daniel Moreau Barringer, a Philadelphia mining engineer and entrepreneur studied the Arizona crater and presented a hypothesis that the crater was formed due to the arrival of meteorites.

It was only in 1960 that Eugene Shoemaker proved Barringer’s hypothesis to be true and ended a prolonged debate around the Barringer crater’s formation. Shoemaker noted the presence of coesite — a mineral form of Silica and another similar material Stishovite. Since the formation of these minerals required much greater pressures and temperatures than any natural phenomenon, Shoemaker substantiated Barringer’s hypothesis proving that the crater was formed due to an asteroid impact event and not volcanic action or steam explosion.

Eugene Shoemaker sitting on the edge of Meteor Crater in Arizona (Image source: AZ Central) 

Discovery of Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet

Twenty-nine years ago, Eugene Shoemaker, his wife Carolyn Shoemaker, a renowned astronomer accredited with discovering/ co-discovering 377 asteroids and 32 comets, and David Levy discovered the Shoemaker-Levy 9 or SL9 Comet orbiting Jupiter in March 1993. A year later, a historic moment came up between July 16 and 22 when the SL9 Comet collided with Jupiter. The event was the first ever real-time observation of an extraterrestrial collision in the solar system with many across the world witnessing it.

According to NASA, several observatories on Earth as well as satellites in orbit, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, Ulysses, and Voyager 2, observed the collision and what followed. Shoemaker-Levy 9 left behind black, ringed scars that were later covered over by Jupiter’s winds. The comet was split into at least twenty-one fragments by the planet’s tidal forces.

Composite image of Jupiter and comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (Image source: NASA)

As Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 revealed, large impacts still happen in the Solar System, and NASA utilized this information when developing programs aimed at lowering the risk of impacts on Earth.

In a piece applauding Gene Shoemaker, his wife Carolyn, and David Levy for their incredible discovery, NASA notes: “From comet science to Jupiter science, to the science of impacts, the legacy of that serendipitous discovery by Carolyn and Gene Shoemaker, and David Levy, continues to this day and into the future.”

Years later, astronomer David Levy wrote a book titled Shoemaker: The Man Who Made An Impact giving a fitting tribute to Eugene Shoemaker and his outstanding achievements in the field of astrogeology and planetary sciences.

(Image source: Princeton University website)

Shoemaker’s unfulfilled dream to travel to the Moon fulfilled after his death

Shoemaker opined that geological studies can be pivotal in space-related programs and research. He had a dream of being the first geologist to map the Moon. He led teams that studied the Moon’s structure and history in the 1960s and developed techniques for planetary geologic mapping using telescopic images of the Moon.

He played a significant role in the Lunar Ranger missions to the Moon, which revealed that the Moon was covered in impact craters of all sizes. In addition to detecting 800 asteroids, Shoemaker also trained many of American astronauts. 

Shoemaker, who himself could have become the first geologist-astronaut to join the Apollo moon flight, however, could not turn his moon dream into a reality as he was diagnosed with Addison’s disease which prevents the adrenal glands from producing sufficient hormones.

Shoemaker and Carolyn resumed their ongoing research on asteroids and craters after Shoemaker was forced to give up his dream. Eugene along with his wife Carolyn set up an observation program at Palomar Observatory in California.

 Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker at Palomar Observatory (Image source: Earth Date)

The geologist spent the rest of his life traveling the world in search of rare impact craters. On July 18, 1997, while on one of his treks, Shoemaker was involved in a head-on collision with a car close to Alice Springs, Australia. While the 69-year-old explorer died in the accident, Carolyn suffered multiple injuries.

Eugene’s ashes were kept in NASA’s Lunar Prospector

While NASA was preparing to launch its Lunar Prospector at the same time, Carolyn Shoemaker suggested sending her late husband’s ashes with the prospector to fulfill his dream. As NASA approved the proposal, Eugene Shoemaker became the first person to have his ashes scattered on the Moon.

Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes were placed in a memorial capsule and sent to the moon on Lunar Prospector on January 6, 1998. The vacuum-sealed, flight-tested aluminum sleeve was attached deep inside the spaceship and carried the polycarbonate capsule, which measured one and three-quarters inches in length and seven-tenths of an inch in diameter.

Carolyn demonstrated the truth of the saying that “love is the strongest emotion in the world” by accomplishing her husband’s dream of going to the moon. Interestingly, she had handpicked certain things that were sent along with the ashes including a piece of brass foil inscribed with an image of a Comet Hale-Bopp, an image of a 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.

In a 1998 press release, Carolyn Shoemaker said, “I don’t think Gene ever dreamed his ashes would go to the moon. He would be thrilled. 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.”

When the Lunar Prospector crashed on the Moon surface after completing its mission, Eugene’s ashes found their dream. So far he is the only person whose ashes have been dispersed on the Moon.

Space is where human ambitions are matched with human potential. Centuries ago, humans used stars to navigate around the oceans and search for new continents to settle in. Now, humans look at space to know the secrets of the universe and to see if humanity can one day settle on other planets. Space research brings nations closer and in a way, unites this world because when we look upwards, small differences among ourselves no longer matter.

The quest to study the Moon has been a long-cherished endeavor. If all goes well, India will today become the fourth nation in the world to accomplish a soft landing on the Moon.

As Vikram Lander prepares to land on the Lunar south pole, cumulative knowledge of several generations of scientists and data gathered by multiple space organizations are coming into play.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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