For millennia the moon held a powerful place in our consciousness, entrenched in myths and legends around the world since our brains were able to comprehend and wonder on such things, and inspiring awe and wonder. As our species evolved and learned of the universe and how planets worked the moon lost none of its allure, becoming a target for our next age of discovery, only now rather than some mysterious landmass out past the vast ocean this was an alien place lying through the cold stretches of space, a specter that for so long seemed unreachable. In 1969, we finally made it, conquering the moon with the first man to set foot upon it, American astronaut Neil Armstrong of the Apollo 11 mission, and opening a new chapter into a brave new world of discovery. It would only be a matter of time before someone would be buried there, and there is one man who is. This is his story.
Back in the 1960s, there were few planetary scientists as illustrious or esteemed as the great Eugene Merle Shoemaker. A gifted scientist, he had been enrolled in CalTech, in California, at the tender age of just 16, and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at 19, after which went on to earn his his Ph.D. degree at Princeton. He became involved in doing research for the United States Geological Survey in 1950, for which he scouted out uranium deposits in Utah and Colorado and did investigations into volcanic processes and deposits, before going on to study meteor impact craters, notably the 570-foot-deep (173-meter) Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona. Indeed, he would be the one to prove that it was the actual impact of a meteorite, and this is just one of his many major accomplishments.
Shoemaker became an expert in impact craters, and was instrumental in not only progressing our understanding of terrestrial craters but also analyzing the craters of the moon, in the process providing the first map of the moon and revolutionizing our understanding of lunar geology, and in fact many of the craters and geological features of the moon were named by him. Shoemaker would also be the one who first came up with the hypothesis that a meteor impact was what had killed the dinosaurs, now accepted as scientific fact, and shed much illumination on our understanding of meteor impacts in general. So important were his contributions to his field that Shoemaker is considered one of the fathers of the emerging discipline of planetary science and astrogeology, and in 1960 he founded the Astrogeology Research Program within the United States Geological Survey. He would also have a hand in training astronauts, and he would have been an astronaut himself if he had not been diagnosed with an adrenal gland disorder known as Addison’s disease and disqualified.
During his career, Shoemaker earned various awards and accolades, notably he was awarded the the John Price Wetherill Medal from the Franklin Institute in 1965 and the National Medal of Science by then-president George H.W. Bush in 1992, he was also a prominent commentator on the space missions Apollo 8 and Apollo 11, and he was the lead geologist and investigator for Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and Apollo 13 findings. However, what would really propel his shining star into the stratosphere was his 1994 discovery of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet, which crashed into the planet Jupiter, the impact of which left a gaping wound on the surface and was televised around the world to make him a household name.
In his later years, Shoemaker became involved in traveling around the world looking for undiscovered impact craters in far-flung remote places along with his wife and fellow scientist Carolyn, but his main object of interest was always the moon, a place he had been denied a chance of ever actually going to. On July 18, 1997, Shoemaker and his wife were on one of these excursions at a remote and rugged place called the Tanami Track, in the desolate wilds of the Australian Outback, when they were tragically involved in a car crash. The crash would kill Eugene Shoemaker and seriously injure Carolyn, and thus one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century was lost to us. However, he still had one more pioneering achievement in him, even in death.
To help Shoemaker finally reach his beloved moon, which he had long been unable to go to because of his medical condition, a space burial company called Celestis was tasked with designing a specialized urn which could hold the late scientist’s ashes and be outfitted onto a spacecraft to launch them into space. The capsule holding the remains was then put aboard a space probe called the Lunar Prospector on Jan. 6, 1998 and sent to the moon bearing a brass foil wrapping upon which is laser etched images of image of the Hale-Bopp Comet and the Arizona crater he had long studied, as well as the quote from 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.
The probe would make it to the moon, where it was crashed into the lunar South Pole along with its cargo, burying it there forevermore. It was a momentous occasion, because although there had been human remains sent to space before, most notably those of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in 1992, these actually almost always had fallen back to earth to burn up on reentry. This was the first time, and still the only time, these remains had actually been taken to land and rest on an extraterrestrial planetary body. It was Eugene Shoemaker’s final mission, and he had made it to the moon after all, with his wife saying, “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.”
Although Shoemaker was the first and so far only person to ever be buried on an off world body, this is set to change in the coming years, as the same company has ramped up its program to send human remains to the moon, for a price. For the princely sum of $12,500 per gram of cremated remains you too can be sent off to the moon to make history, and it seems like only a matter of time before there are more people up there to join Shoemaker in his eternal rest. For now it is only him out there in the void, just as groundbreaking in death as he was in life, and it seems like it is a fitting resting place for such a pioneer of space sciences.