Issue 7: the man on the moon

Looking up at the full moon earlier this week, I was reminded of this story.

The moon has been a source of fascination (and sometimes fear) for thousands of years. Some of the earliest-known lunar calendars and celestial cave art, found in France and Germany, date to c32,000 BC.

Eugene Shoemaker was one of the fascinated many.

Shoemaker was an American geologist who dreamed of going to the moon. While he did train Apollo astronauts about what to expect on the moon’s surface, Addison’s disease (a hormone deficiency) meant he could never go there himself.

At least not during his lifetime. But in death, his contribution to planetary science was honoured, and his dream posthumously fulfilled, when his ashes were sent into space and the capsule containing them crashed into the moon’s surface.

Shoemaker was a pioneer. He was the founding director of the US Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Research Program in 1961. His life’s work researching impact craters influenced everything from NASA's Apollo missions to the dinosaur extinction debate. He was awarded the National Medal of Science (the highest scientific honour in America) in 1992. And in 1994 he and wife Carolyn, working with astronomer David Levy, were the first scientists to witness a planetary collision first-hand when a comet struck Jupiter (it was named Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet).

Eugene Shoemaker pictured in 1965 with a lunar landscape model made using a photometric scaling technique he developed. It uses the different brightness levels in a picture transmitted by NASA's Ranger VII spacecraft to obtain the relative height or depth of hills and craters. Image credit: NASA


In death, his firsts continued.

When Shoemaker died in a car crash while exploring a meteor crater in Australia in 1997, his former student, Carolyn Porco, got permission from Shoemaker’s family, and NASA, to send his ashes to the moon. She enlisted the help of Celestis, a company that specialises in sending ashes into orbit (including those of ‘Star Trek’ creator Gene Roddenberry and counter-culture icon Timothy Leary).

Shoemaker’s cremains were placed in a capsule wrapped in a brass foil ribbon engraved with pictures of Arizona’s Barringer meteor crater (where he trained the Apollo astronauts), the comet Hale-Bopp (the last comet the Shoemakers observed together), and a quote from ‘Romeo & 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.

The capsule was on the Lunar Prospector when it launched from Cape Canaveral on 6 January 1998. Eighteen months later, on 31 July 1999, the vessel (which successfully detected the presence of water ice on the moon) was deliberately crashed near the lunar south pole. Shoemaker's ashes went down with it.

He is the one and only human to be ‘buried’ on the moon. 

Thanks for reading. Feel free to hit reply to share your thoughts or feedback.

Til next time,

Amy @ Born Free Press

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