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Wednesday, July 28, 1999 Published at 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK


Moon burial for geologist

Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker: Comet hunters

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

US geologist Gene Shoemaker, killed in a 1997 car crash in Australia, is soon to become the first person to be buried on another planet.

When the tiny Lunar Prospector spacecraft crashes into a dark crater near the Moon's south pole on Saturday, it will deposit onto the lunar surface the ashes of the pioneering astro-geologist.

[ image: The Moon's south pole: Shoemaker's resting place]
The Moon's south pole: Shoemaker's resting place
Shortly before Professor Shoemaker died he said, "Not going to the Moon and banging on it with my own hammer has been the biggest disappointment in life." In death he will get his wish.

Major impact

He was a legend among geologists. Almost on his own he invented the science of the study of cosmic impacts and he played a key role in training the Apollo moonwalkers to explore the Moon in a scientific manner.

Shoemaker's work meant the scientific return from Apollo was extraordinary.

He had wanted to be an astronaut himself and perhaps today he could have been. But in the early 1960's health qualifications were more stringent than they are now and he was turned down because of a minor medical problem.

[ image: Exploring meteor craters in the 1960's]
Exploring meteor craters in the 1960's
Early in his career he saw the Barringer meteor crater in Arizona. He was certain it was made by a giant meteorite. "At first, for a long while, nobody believed me, but eventually I convinced them," he once remarked.

Later, he was to return to the crater to train Apollo astronauts how to look for rocks and identify geological features.

Lunar dream

Throughout a scientifically rich and rewarding life as scientist his unfulfilled dream to walk on the Moon continued to haunt him.

His colleagues and friends knew of this wish and so they placed on the side of the Lunar Prospector spacecraft a small polycarbonate capsule carrying an ounce of his cremated remains.

He devoted his life's work to investigating the geology of Solar System bodies, studying cosmic impacts, and searching for comets with his wife, Carolyn.

[ image: Lunar Prospector has surveyed the Moon for 18 months]
Lunar Prospector has surveyed the Moon for 18 months
He became world famous when in 1993 he and his wife, and astronomer David Levy discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. It went on to be torn apart by planetary tides before its fiery impact on the planet Jupiter in July 1994

"He would be thrilled"

"I don't think Gene ever dreamed his ashes would go to the Moon," Carolyn Shoemaker said shortly before watching Lunar prospector blast-off in January 1998. "He would be thrilled."

"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."

Photos courtesy of the United States Geological Survey.

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Eugene Shoemaker 1928 -1997

Eugene Shoemaker: A tribute

Lunar Prospector Impact

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