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Distant Thunder - Man in the Moon

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan discovers a new twist to an old Sinatra song

Fly Me to the Moon was a great hit for Frank Sinatra back in the 1960s. But although the Ol’ Blue-Eyes may have gazed upward, his feet remained firmly on the ground. Not so for Eugene (Gene) Shoemaker (1928-1997). A geologist with a life-long passion for studying impact craters, he brought together geological principles to the mapping of planets, founded the US Geological Survey Branch of Astrogeology in 1961 and established its field centre in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1963.

Shoemaker‘SuperGene’ (left) retired from the USGS in 1993, and in the same year, along with his wife Carolyn and collaborator David Levy, discovered the Comet Shoemaker-Levy, which crashed into Jupiter in 1994, providing new insights into the dynamics of comets and the planetary science of the greatest of the gas giants. He was tragically killed on 18 July 1997 as the result of a car accident in Alice Springs Australia while carrying out field work on impact craters. One of his last public appearances had been at a Society Fermor Meeting on meteoritics, just a few months before.

Recalling how Shoemaker once mentioned that ‘Not going to the Moon and banging on it with my own hammer has been the biggest disappointment in life’, his colleague and former student Dr Carolyn Porco (now a Senior Research Scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder) proposed and set in motion a fitting tribute – a scheme to send some of Shoemaker’s ashes to a final resting place on the Moon.

Permission from Shoemaker’s family and NASA administrators came quickly, and a tiny polycarbonate capsule – just 1.75 inches long and 0.7 inches in diameter – containing some of Shoemaker’s ashes was packed inside a vacuum-sealed flight-tested aluminium sleeve and loaded onto the Lunar Prospector spacecraft. This was launched at 02:28:44 GMT on 7 January 1998 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and 105 hours later it entered Lunar orbit. On 31 July 1998, Shoemaker’s ashes reached their final resting place when the Lunar Prospector (mission accomplished and having found no water) was deliberately crashed onto the surface of the Moon in a seismic experiment.

Wrapped around the capsule is a piece of brass foil carrying images of the comet Hale-Bopp and of Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, along with the 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.

A truly inspirational end for a geologist who made a real impact.


Sources for this vignette include: Information about the Lunar Prospector on the websites: ; information about Hale-Bopp and Shoemaker-Levy at; Shoemaker’s ashes at; Wikipedia, and an obituary at

  • If the past is the key to your present interests, why not join the History of Geology Group (HOGG)? For more information and to read the latest HOGG newsletter, visit:, where the programme and abstracts from the Conference on Geological Collectors and Collecting are available as a pdf file free to download.

* Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford.