A Tribute

It was legend among planetary scientists that Eugene M. Shoemaker, a pioneer in the exploration of the Solar System, had longed to go to the Moon as an Apollo astronaut and study its geology firsthand. Unfortunately, a medical condition diagnosed in the early 1960s prevented him from doing so.

Instead, he helped select and train the Apollo astronauts in lunar geology and impact cratering, and devoted his life's work to investigating the geology of Solar System bodies, studying the effects of cosmic impacts, and searching for comets with his wife, Carolyn. His seminal achievements in these areas earned him the United States' highest scientific honor, the National Medal of Science, in 1992. He became world-renowned when he, his wife, and astronomer David Levy discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, an icy body torn apart by planetary tides before its fiery impact into the planet Jupiter in July 1994.

Throughout a rich and rewarding life as scientist, teacher, and explorer, his unfulfilled dream continued to haunt him. Only two years before he died, he said, "Not going to the Moon and banging on it with my own hammer has been the biggest disappointment in life".

Shoemaker was finally, in death, granted his wish. On Janury 6, 1998, a small polycarbonate capsule carrying an ounce of his cremains traveled to the moon aboard NASA's Lunar Prospector spacecraft. Wrapped around the capsule was a 1.5 inch (3.8 cm) square piece of brass foil, laser-inscribed with a composite image (shown above) designed to commemorate Shoemaker's scientific legacy.

The top of the inscription features an image of Hale-Bopp, the comet that graced the spring skies of Earth in the year that Shoemaker died, and the last comet that the Shoemakers observed together. This image, taken on April 14, 1997 from Tucson, AZ, dramatically displays the details in both the comet's ion and diffuse dust tails. In the lower left corner is Shoemaker's favorite photo of Meteor Crater, the 4000 ft (1.2 km) wide and 750 ft (230 m) deep bowl-shaped depression in northern Arizona where he trained the Apollo astronauts. In 1960, it was Shoemaker who provided convincing evidence that the crater was formed by an impact event. Later, he and his colleagues demonstrated that the impact occurred about 50,000 years ago, shortly before humans permanently inhabited this part of the Colorado plateau.

And at the inscription's center is a passage from William Shakespeare's enduring love story, "Romeo and Juliet", chosen for its apt expression of the warmth and admiration bestowed on Shoemaker by his friends, colleagues and fellow explorers all over the world.

On July 31, 1999, after eighteen months of successful orbital scientific operations, Lunar Prospector was commanded to crash into the surface of the Moon. The fulfillment of one man's dream, and the final episode of his inspirational life, met on impact. At his journey's end, thirty years to the month after humans first set foot on the Moon, Eugene M. Shoemaker became the first inhabitant of Earth to be sent to rest on another celestial body.

by Carolyn C. Porco


Polycarbonate container provided by the Celestis Corporation;

Engineering oversight by Lunar Prospector Mission Manager Scott Hubbard and Assistant Mission Manager Sylvia Cox Ames Research Center, CA;

Laser engraving provided by George Wendell, Jr. of Universal Laser Systems in Phoenix, AZ;

Comet Hale-Bopp photo taken and provided by Steve Larson of the Lunar and Planetary Lab, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ;

Meteor Crater photo taken by David Roddy and Karl Zeller of the USGS in Flagstaff, AZ. Photo provided by D. Roddy;

Approval granted by NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science, Dr. Wesley T. Huntress and NASA Administrator, Mr. Daniel Goldin;

Conceived and produced by Carolyn C. Porco, Team Leader, Cassini Imaging Science team, and Professor, Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO.

Web page last modified February 23, 2022.