Eugene Shoemaker – The Only Person Ever to be Buried on the Moon

Eugene Shoemaker was a distinguished and revolutionary scientist who has the honor of being the only person ever to be buried on the moon. In this article we take a look at the incredible true story of the life of Eugene Shoemaker, how he came to be buried on the moon, and if he is still buried on the moon today.

Who Was Eugene Shoemaker?

Eugene Shoemaker was a geologist who made many notable contributions to his field. His main area of study was meteors and the craters they created. Shoemaker was a pioneer of astrogeology and worked with NASA starting in the 1960s.

He founded the Astrogeology Research Program, located in the Shoemaker Building in Flagstaff, Arizona. One of his most memorable achievements was the co-discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 which hit Jupiter in the summer of 1994, permanently scarring the face of the planet. This event was shown on television screens around the world.

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Eugene Shoemaker
Gene Shoemaker donning a Bell rocket belt

In his studies, he was able to determine the difference between volcanic craters and craters created by meteors. This was a revolutionary discovery because previously, it had been believed that all craters, even on the moon, were created by volcanic activity.

By studying the impact sites of meteors on Earth, he discovered that the craters on the moon were in fact caused by meteor impacts and not by volcanic activity as previously believed. His research was instrumental in the discovery of several asteroid families, including the Apollo asteroids.

He also directed a team in creating the first geological map of the moon based on photographs taken by American astronomer Francis Gladheim Pease. In the 1960s the US sent a series of Lunar Rangers to the moon to obtain close-up photographs of the surface.

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Shoemaker was heavily involved in the Ranger missions to the moon. Without his contributions, some of the greatest scientific advancements in space travel may not have happened. His work was instrumental in sending a man to the moon for the first time.

In order to study craters, he had to visit meteor impact sites to collect samples and take measurements. He spent a lot of time in Arizona, studying meteor impact sites in the desert. For his Ph.D. from Princeton in the 1960s, he studied the impact dynamics of the Barringer Meteor Crater.

He would ultimately pass away as he lived, on his way to an impact site in Australia. As a result of a car crash, Eugene Shoemaker would never reach his destination and was pronounced dead in 1997. His wife Carolyn was also in the crash but survived with some injuries.

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Apollo 11 bootprint
Apollo 11 bootprint

He was the principal lunar geology investigator of the Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and Apollo 13 missions to the moon. He helped train the American astronauts for the moon’s terrain before takeoff by taking them to visit meteor crash sites in Arizona.

At one point he himself was a candidate for being among the first astronauts to ever visit the moon but was disqualified due to a preexisting health condition. After his death in 1997, he would have his wish of visiting the moon granted by being the first and only man ever buried on the moon.

Eugene Shoemaker’s Early Life

Eugene Shoemaker was born in Los Angeles, California. He moved around a lot as a child because of his father’s job. George Shoemaker switched careers multiple times, moving his family to big cities like Los Angeles, Buffalo, and New York to pursue job opportunities.

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They finally settled in Wyoming, with George taking a job working for a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. His wife, Eugene’s mother, Muriel May was not happy living at the remote, off-the-grid camp and decided to go back to Buffalo, NY to continue a job in teaching. From then on, Eugene split his time between the big city and the remote conservation camp. He and his mother stayed in Buffalo while he was in school and then went to stay with his father in Wyoming for the spring, fall, and summer breaks.

Miscellany in Buffalo Museum of Science IMG 3889
Meteorite Exhibit at the Buffalo Museum of Science

It was during these summers that Eugene first discovered his love for studying rocks and geology. By the fourth grade, he was studying minerals and collecting samples in the wild. He joined programs of study in school dedicated to the study of geology.

Back in Buffalo, Eugene joined the Buffalo Museum of Education‘s science education program to further expand his knowledge. He was an exceptionally bright child, who began attending high-school-level classes at night in addition to his science program during the day.

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By 1942, he had already started high school at 13 years old. He graduated when he was 16 just three years later, but that didn’t stop him from making the most out of his high school experience. He participated in multiple extracurricular activities like playing violin for the school orchestra and joining the gymnastics team.

Shortly after graduating high school, he enrolled at the California Institute of Technology, where he graduated at 19 with a bachelor’s degree. He continued his education at Caltech with a thesis on metamorphic rocks found in New Mexico and obtained his master’s degree.

Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker
Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker at the 18 inch Schmidt at Palomar Observatory in 1994

He met his wife Carolyn at the wedding of his college roommate. She was the sister of the groom. They would go on to raise a beautiful family of three children in Flagstaff, Arizona close to Eugene’s meteor research site. Eugene traveled often, while his wife Caroyln stayed home with the children.

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After their children were grown and left the house, at the age of 51 Carolyn joined Eugene in his studies and contributed to some of his most notable discoveries. Thanks to Eugene, Carolyn, and fellow scientist David Levy, the world got a rare chance to see a planetary collision like never before.

Why Was Eugene Shoemaker Buried On the Moon?

Meteorite crater at Wabar
Meteorite crater at Wabar by Jeffrey C. Wynn and Eugene M. Shoemaker, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Eugene Shoemaker would have been a perfect candidate to be one of the first men on the moon because of his lifetime study of the impact zones of meteors. The terrain of the Barringer Meteor Crater, the topic of his thesis, was almost identical to the surface of the moon.

He initially signed up to be an astronaut on the Apollo missions, but because of his preexisting condition of Addison’s disease, he was disqualified. He abandoned his pursuit of being an astronaut to contribute to science in other ways through his study of asteroids and meteors. It was his life-long desire to visit the moon and explore its surface taking samples and measurements first hand. To honor his scientific achievements, his ashes were flown to the moon after his death in 1997.

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Eugene Shoemaker’s life was cut short by a car crash, leaving his family and the scientific community mourning in the wake of his death. His colleague at NASA was the first to have the idea of sending his body to the moon. It was well-known among those close to Shoemaker that going to the moon was a dream of his. NASA thought that it would be a suitable way to honor him for his many years of valuable contributions to the Apollo missions. Transporting a whole corpse to the moon would have been difficult, so his remains were cremated to prepare for the flight.

Is Eugene Shoemaker’s Body Still On the Moon?

Eugene Shoemaker
Eugene Shoemaker, April 28, 1928 – July 18, 1997

The Lunar Prospect was launched to the moon in 1998, carrying with it the remains of Eugene Shoemaker in a small polycarbonate and aluminum capsule. It must have been an emotional moment for those who loved Eugene to watch the rocket take off with his ashes.

His wife Carolyn said that her husband would have never dreamed of such an honor, but would have been thrilled about it. She also said that it brought a lot of peace and closure to the family after his untimely death to be able to look up at the moon any time and know he was there. After his many years of studying the moon, being buried there was the ultimate honor of Eugene Shoemaker’s memory.

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A company called Celestis specializes in sending cremated remains into space in specially made capsules. Although they had never sent ashes to the moon before, NASA commissioned Celestis to create the time capsule that would carry Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes on the Lunar Prospect rocket. The capsule had to be made out of special polycarbonate material to withstand the climate in space.

The Lunar Prospect was sent to the South pole of the moon to collect data from its orbit 63 miles above the surface. The Lunar Prospect spacecraft has been used to detect water and ice below the surface of the moon that may be instrumental to future space travel.

The Lunar Prospect rocket reached the moon on July 31st, 1999, and launched the capsule of Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes into the surface that same day. The capsule crashed onto the surface of the moon with immense force, burying him in its surface and creating an impact zone of his own.

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On the outside of the capsule is engraved his name, date of birth, and a photo of him. In the black and white photo, Eugene can be seen standing on the edge of a crater on one of his many field trips to train astronauts. To this day, the time capsule containing Eugene Shoemaker’s body is still buried on the South pole of the moon carrying with it a passage from Shakespeare’s 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.

– William Shakespeare
Shoemaker crater
Shoemaker Crater in Western Australia, named after scientist Eugene Shoemaker