There could be no finer tribute to the legendary planetary geologist who said his greatest unfulfilled dream was to go to the moon.
Tonight, the ashes of Eugene M. Shoemaker are to be launched in a memorial capsule aboard Lunar Prospector to the moon. The polycarbonate capsule, one-and-three-quarters inches long and seventh-tenths inch in diameter, is carried in a vacuum-sealed, flight-tested aluminum sleeve mounted deep inside the spacecraft.
Around the capsule is wrapped a piece of brass foil inscribed with an image of a Comet Hale-Bopp, an image of 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."
Shoemaker was best known for his work on extraterrestrial impacts and for his later collaboration with his wife, Carolyn, in the study and discovery of comets. He was long a distinguished scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Flagstaff, Ariz., where he established the agency's astrogeology branch. He was killed July 18, 1997, in a car accident in Alice Springs, Australia, during field research on impact crater geology. Carolyn Shoemaker was injured in the accident.
"I don't think Gene ever dreamed his ashes would go to the moon," Carolyn Shoemaker said shortly before leaving to witness the Lunar Prospector launch. "He would be thrilled."
The Shoemakers' children and their spouses, as well as a sister and brother-in-law, are also at Cape Canaveral for the event.
"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."
Carolyn C. Porco, a planetary scientist at The University of Arizona in Tucson, proposed and produced the tribute. She said, "The idea to give Gene Shoemaker the moon as his final resting place came to me on July 19th , the day after Gene died and the moment I read in the morning newspaper that his body would be cremated."
It may be nothing short of a minor miracle that within only weeks, Porco's inspired thought became reality. She quickly contacted the Shoemaker family and NASA officials about the proposal. Given the go-ahead, she designed and crafted the inscription in time to get it and the capsule containing Shoemaker's ashes on the lunar spacecraft before pre-flight testing.
Porco was a student of Shoemaker's when he was a professor and she was a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Field trips that Shoemaker led into Meteor Crater and the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona "are to this day among my most cherished memories," Porco said. During the 1980s, Porco and Shoemaker were members of the imaging team for Voyager, the mission to the outer planets. They also collaborated as co-investigators on a science instrument proposal for the upcoming NASA mission to Pluto.
"It was legend in the planetary science community that Gene had always wanted to go to the moon as an Apollo astronaut and study its geology firsthand," Porco said. "He said only last year, 'Not going to the moon and banging on it with my own hammer has been the biggest disappointment in life.' I felt that this was Gene's last chance to get to the moon, and that it would be a fitting and beautiful tribute to a man who was a towering figure and a pioneer in the exploration of the solar system," Porco said.
A health problem prevented Shoemaker from becoming the first geologist on the moon. Instead, he helped select and train the Apollo astronauts in lunar geology and impact cratering. He sat beside Walter Cronkite in evening newscasts, giving geologic commentary during the moon walks. He was involved in the pre-Apollo Lunar Ranger and Surveyor programs, and culminated his lunar research as science-team leader on the 1994 Clementine mission.
The Clementine mission included a deliberate search for water near the poles of the moon, Carolyn Shoemaker noted, but Clementine data did not settle the question. The search for water at the lunar poles is a key goal of Lunar Prospector, and that makes the tribute even more meaningful, she added.
Shoemaker, recipient of a 1984 honorary doctorate of science degree from The University of Arizona, won many major honors. He was awarded the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor bestowed by the President of the United States, in 1992 by then- President George Bush.
Porco's striking thought ignited a rapid-fire e-mail exchange on July 19, a Saturday. She immediately sent a message to Tucson astronomer and UA adjunct scientist David Levy, whose quoted comment about the cremation sparked her idea. Porco told Levy, a close colleague and friend of the Shoemakers, about the proposal and asked if he would help present it to Carolyn Shoemaker.
Porco simultaneously sent an e-mail message to David Morrison of the NASA Ames Research Center, inquiring about future lunar missions. Morrison replied within hours that he had spoken with Lunar Prospector Mission Director Scott Hubbard about the idea.
Levy quickly replied he thought it was an excellent idea and agreed to ask Carolyn Shoemaker about it as soon as possible. He made his first telephone call after the accident to Carolyn Shoemaker on July 20th, when she was just out of surgery at the hospital in Alice Springs. Because there was so little time until Lunar Prospector launch, which was then scheduled for September, 1997, Levy needed to ask her about the proposed tribute during that call.
Levy confirmed with Porco that afternoon that when he told Carolyn Shoemaker of the idea to put Gene's ashes on the moon, her first reaction was, "Bless her." Carolyn Shoemaker told Levy she wanted to discuss the proposal with the family when they arrived, but that she liked the idea very much, and the more she thought about it, the better she liked it.
"From 1948 to 1963, Gene's major goal was to go to the moon," Levy said. "When Carolyn (Porco) came up with this idea, it was absolutely the most wonderful thing she could have done."
Levy and the Shoemakers together in 1993 discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the spectacular comet that became unique in the history of science when it was torn apart by and and crashed into Jupiter in 1994. Levy has started work on Gene Shoemaker's biography, which will be published by Princeton University Press.
Ten days after the accident, Porco had unofficial approval for the proposal from NASA administrators.
By the end of August, a Phoenix firm, Universal Laser Systems, had laser-engraved Porco's inscription design on the foil. She carried the engraved foil with her to Flagstaff in late August, where she and the members of the Shoemaker family placed the ashes in the capsule on the grounds of the Shoemaker residence, in sight of the San Francisco Peaks. From there, Porco flew the next day to NASA Ames Research Center where she delivered the special payload to Hubbard -- just in time for installation before the spacecraft was scheduled for spin-balancing.
Porco said she chose the Shakespeare passage for the inscription because it expresses the love and devotion the Shoemakers had for each other, and because it describes "what will now come to pass, that every moon-lit sky will forever be made more beautiful by Gene's inspiring presence."
She also chose for inscription a spectacular CCD image of Comet Hale-Bopp, taken on April 14, 1997, with an 85mm camera lens by Steve Larson of the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Comet Hale-Bopp blazed in Earth's sky in the spring of the year that Shoemaker died, and it also was the last comet that the Shoemakers observed together, Porco noted.
Porco also wanted to include the best photo of Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, where Shoemaker had trained the Apollo astronauts. At Carolyn Shoemaker's suggestion, Porco selected Gene Shoemaker's favorite photo of the great crater, which shows the volcanic San Francisco Peaks and several other important geologic features. It was taken by David Roddy and Karl Zeller of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff.
Lunar Prospector was scheduled for launch during a 4-minute window that began at 8:31 p.m. EST, or 6:31 p.m. MST, Jan. 5. Launch is now set for 9:28 EST, 7:28 MST, Jan. 6. After a 105-hour cruise to the moon, the spacecraft will be placed in lunar orbit and begin a one-year mapping mission from 63 miles above the lunar surface. When its battery fails at the end of its lifetime, an estimated 18 months or more from now, Lunar Prospector and its special payload will crash on the moon.