There is only one person in the world that has the unique distinction of having their remains buried on the surface of the moon. So who claims this deep six in deep space? Eugene Merle Shoemaker.
Eugene Shoemaker was a prominent American geologist who, after studying craters here on earth, took his expertise to a more astral realm. In the 1960’s he founded a successful research program which not only generated the first geologic map of the Moon but also helped teach Apollo astronauts as to what types of terrain they could expect to find once they arrived. Shoemaker was even ready to take the trip himself but was disqualified due to suffering from an adrenal disorder. But that wouldn’t deter him.
He continued his work for decades and went on to become a household name after co-discovering his famed namesake, along with his wife Carolyn and colleague David Levy – Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.
The comet drew worldwide attention after crashing into Jupiter just a year after it’s discovery, leaving a massive “scar” on the face of the planet. This celestial collision proved to be the first time humans were able to witness this type of impact first hand and caused such a hubbub it even inspired the made for TV movie ‘Without Warning.’ The War of the Worlds-esque drama kicked off with well know journalists playing themselves, breaking into regularly scheduled programming to cover the cataclysmic news, causing some viewers to believe the events depicted were happening in real time. Planetary science was certainly experiencing a moment.
Unfortunately for Shoemaker his research would be forever eclipsed on July 18, 1997. After exploring a large meteor crater with his wife Carolyn in Austrailian Outback, the couple suffered a head-on vehicle crash. Eugene was killed instantly, Carolyn survived.
To commemorate Shoemaker’s work in the field of planetary science a rather unusual idea, forged by his colleague Carolyn Porco was put into motion. Shoemaker’s cremains would be carried to the moon. With NASA fully on board, a small polycarbonate capsule was commandeered and Shoemaker’s ashes were deposited inside. The memorial capsule featured a brass foil image designed to commemorate Shoemaker’s scientific legacy. It included an image of the Hale-Bopp Comet (the last comet that he and his dear wife observed together), an image of the Meteor Crater in northern Arizona where he had trained the Apollo astronauts, and a passage from “Romeo and Juliet” which read:
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
On January 6th, 1998 Lunar Prospector launched carrying the precious cargo. The Prospector was equipped with a special battery that, by design, would fail in 18 months sending the capsule crashing toward the moon. After a year long mapping mission some 60 miles above the lunar surface it did just that. On July 31, 1999 at 5:52 a.m the Lunar Prospector hit the moon, permanently depositing the remains of Eugene Merle Shoemaker. A burial that was truly out of this world.
Associated Press. Crash Takes Life of Comet Discoverer. Green Bay Press-Gazette. Saturday, July 19, 1997. Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Fletcher, Chris. Burying A Man on the Moon. The Houston Chronicle. July 31, 1999. Houston, Texas.
Wolgast, Stephen. Despite Fake ‘News Broadcast,’ TV Movie Tonight Depicts Thunder Basin Disaster. Casper Star-Tribune. Sunday, October 30, 1994 – Page 12. Casper, Wyoming