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Gene Shoemaker was a scientist credited with developing the field of astrogeology, as well as working in astronomy, volcanology, paleomagnetism, petrology, stratigraphy, impact dynamics, and field geology. Shoemaker discovered the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with his wife, Carolyn, and fellow researcher, David Levy. He used the observations from this discovery to invent the concept of dating a planetary surface by calculating the number of impact craters and size distributions.[1]

Youth and Initial Education

Eugene M. Shoemaker was born on April 28, 1928, in Los Angeles, California, to parents George Estel Shoemaker and Muriel May Scott.[2] Both of his parents moved to California from Nebraska and his father worked as a teacher, farmer, coach, and movie grip while Eugene grew up. The family moved many places, including Buffalo, New York, and Wyoming. His father worked as a Civilian Conservation Corps in the latter and his mother preferred living in and working in Buffalo at their School of Practice. Shoemaker spent summers with both parents in Wyoming and the school year in Buffalo with his mother and siblings.

Shoemaker participated in evening and Saturday morning science classes at the Buffalo Museum of Science during his primary school years. This began his interest in rocks and by the time he enrolled at the School of Practice in fourth grade, he avidly collected minerals. He took high school courses in the evenings that first year and learned about the Devonian fossils found in western New York through self-teaching.

The Shoemaker family moved to Los Angeles in 1942 and Gene enrolled in Fairfax Senior High School, graduating a year early. He then attended California Institute of Technology (Caltech) beginning in 1944 at only 16-years-old. Being around older students preparing to serve in World War II drove his ambition and inquiring mind. At age 19, Gene Shoemaker received his Bachelor’s Degree and a Masters of Science the following year after studying Precambrian metamorphic rock petrology in northern New Mexico.[3]

Career Beginnings and Doctorate

In 1948, the U.S. Geological Survey hired Eugene Shoemaker and he would work with them for the rest of his life.[4] Shoemaker continued his studies of metamorphic petrology by pursuing a Ph.D. in 1950 at Princeton University, New Jersey. He paused his studies when the USGS contracted him to explore Utah and Colorado for uranium deposits. The research on the Colorado Plateau introduced him to an impact structure at the Meteor Crater and he found many volcanic features remaining in the Hopi Buttes of Arizona.[5][6] His studies at the Meteor Crater led him to the conclusion that both that crater and the ones seen on the moon occurred because of meteorite impacts.[7] Shoemaker also married Carolyn Spellman in 1951.[8]

Shoemaker enjoyed field mapping and he made a connection between the similarity of nuclear, and other chemical explosions, to impact processes. At Meteor Crater, he, B. M. Madsen, and E. C. T. Chai first discovered the natural occurrence of coesite, the high-pressure polymorph of silicon dioxide. This proved the crater’s formation by meteor impact and not a volcano since coesite is never found in volcanic environments. Chao and Shoemaker later discovered coesite at the German Ries Basin and declared that the result of meteorite impact as well.[9]

Astrogeology, Caltech, and NASA

Eugene Shoemaker requested the USGS to look into making a geological map of Earth’s moon in 1956, but the Cold War quest for plutonium kept him in the field. He received his Ph.D. in 1960 from Princeton with a dissertation of the Meteor Crater. The 1956 paper he published with Robert Hackman called “Strategic Basis for a Lunar Time Scale” revolutionized scientists’ understanding of the moon’s history.

Dr. Eugene Shoemaker’s discoveries opened the exploration of the planets to geologists as well as astronomers.

Dr. Shoemaker helped forge an alliance between the USGS and NASA during four different projects he began in 1961, including the establishment of an astrogeology program within the USGS, the actual study of the new science, acting as Ranger and Surveyor for missions to the moon, and training NASA astronauts prior to their departure. He revealed to NASA the importance of geological techniques in interpreting remote sensing data.

In 1963, Dr. Shoemaker was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, an endocrine disorder that ended his dream of becoming an astronaut and going to the moon. The USGS founded the Astrogeology Center in Flagstaff and appointed him their chief scientist in 1965. This is where he organized all the geological surveys to be conducted during the lunar landings.[10]

Palomar and Discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9

Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker made profound discoveries together as partners in science and in life.

In 1969, Dr. Eugene Shoemaker returned to Caltech to teach as a professor of geology and then served as the chairman of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences. [11] He joined Eleanor Helin to search for the objects that could be forming the lunar and terrestrial impact craters using the 0.46m Schmidt telescope located in Palomar. They succeed in their first astronomical object siting in July 1973, and Carolyn joined her husband and Helin in 1980 to help measure the Palomar films. The Shoemakers split from Helin in 1982.[12]

Carolyn continued helping Gene Shoemaker when he moved to the Palomar Asteroid Comet Survey (PACS) full time since their three children were grown and out of the house. They discovered the first of 32 comets to bear their name in 1983. Throughout their partnership, they also discovered over 800 asteroids, including 40 of the known Apollo, Aten, and Amor asteroids.

The biggest discovery of their lives happened when they joined astronomer David Levy a few months before their PACS program ended. From July 16 to July 22, 1994, David Levy, Carolyn Shoemaker, and her husband watched around 20 pieces of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into the surface of the planet Jupiter. Modern scientists still observe water vapor in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere that formed after these impacts. [13]

Retirement, Sudden Death, and Legacy

This marked the end of the Shoemakers’ partnership with PACS and Gene retired. They continued to investigate terrestrial meteorite impact craters together and the work took them to Australia. The Shoemakers’ vehicle collided head-on with a truck, killing Gene and severely injuring Carolyn.[14] Dr. Eugene Shoemaker died on July 18, 1997, in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia.[15]

On July 31, 1999, the Lunar Prospector space probe took a portion of his ashes to the moon, making him the only person to be laid to rest on Earth’s moon. The Teague Ring in Australia was renamed the Shoemaker Crater in honor of the work the Shoemakers did in the country and his tragic death.[16]



Find A Grave. (1999, September 8). Dr Eugene Merle “Gene” Shoemaker (1928 - 1997). Find A Grave Memorial.[2]

Kieffer, S. W. (2015). Eugene M. Shoemaker, 1928-1997. National Academy of Sciences: Biographical Memoirs.[3]

Marsden, B. (1997, July 18). Eugene Shoemaker (1928-1997). Comet Shoemaker-Levy Collision with Jupiter.[4]


  1. Kieffer, 2015
  2. Find A Grave, 1999
  3. Kieffer, 2015
  4. Kieffer, 2015
  5. Chapman, M. G. Gene Shoemaker - Founder of Astrogeology. USGS: Astrogeology Science Center.[1]
  6. Kieffer, 2015
  7. Kieffer, 2015
  8. Marsden, 1997
  9. Kieffer, 2015
  10. Kieffer, 2015
  11. Kieffer, 2015
  12. Marsden, 1997
  13. Kieffer, 2015
  14. Kieffer, 2015
  15. Find A Grave, 1999
  16. Kieffer, 2015

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