Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker made a life together gazing at the stars. For 17 years, the couple worked side by side — Gene, as a renowned astrogeologist, studying planets and other celestial bodies, and Carolyn, who had turned to astronomy later in life yet discovered more comets than most pros.
"When I was 50 years old and my kids were grown, Gene suggested, well, maybe I would like to try my hand at astronomy a little bit," Carolyn tells her son-in-law Phred Salazar, on a recent visit with StoryCorps.
"I'd never stayed awake a whole night in my life," she continues. "But I found 32 comets" — a tally that was enough to earn her the nickname "Mrs. Comet."
Their work together came to an end with Gene's death in a car crash in 1997. That head-on collision, on a dirt track in the Australian Outback, claimed Gene's life and nearly took Carolyn's as well. She had been beside him in the car and emerged from the accident seriously injured herself.
"Gene and I had never talked about what should happen to us when we died," Carolyn says, "but I was still in the hospital, and here was a phone call from Carolyn Porco."
Porco had been one of Gene's students. And she had a proposal to run by Carolyn. There was little time to waste; Porco had to ask it right then and there.
She told Carolyn that the spacecraft Lunar Prospector was headed to the moon soon. "She hated to bring it up to abruptly," Carolyn recalls, but Porco had to ask: Would Carolyn consider sending Gene's ashes in a capsule on that rocket?
"It was an easy decision," Carolyn says. "He always wanted to be on the moon. And so I knew that Gene would be just elated if he could go to the moon — at last."
To this day, Gene Shoemaker is the only person whose final resting place is the moon.
"I miss him every day. But to this day, you know, I look up at the moon and I can imagine him up there running around looking at craters," Carolyn says.
"Just knowing his joy in it gave me — still does — a lot of joy."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Von Diaz with Sarah Min.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is time for StoryCorps now. After a five-year, 1.7 billion-mile journey, NASA's Juno spacecraft reached Jupiter this week. So today we'll hear about a couple who made a life together gazing into space. Gene Shoemaker was a renowned astrogeologist who studied the geology of planets, asteroids and other celestial bodies. His wife Carolyn took up astronomy later in life and became known as Mrs. Comet for all the comets she discovered. They worked side by side for 17 years until Mr. Shoemaker died in 1997 and got a burial that was out of this world. He's the only person whose final resting place is the moon. At StoryCorps, Carolyn told their son-in-law Phred, how her husband became the man in the moon.
CAROLYN SHOEMAKER: When I was 50 years old, and my kids were grown, Gene suggested, well, maybe I would like to try my hand at astronomy a little bit. I'd never stayed awake a whole night in my life (laughter). The idea of going (laughter) to the telescope seemed kind of impossible. But I found 32 comets. And then Gene and I were on a field trip in Australia. We were rounding a curve, came face to face with another vehicle. It was immediate impact. I couldn't move, and I kept thinking, well, Gene will come around in a minute like he always does, and he'll open the door and get me out of here. But he didn't come. Gene and I had never talked about what should happen to us when we die. But I was still in the hospital, and here was a phone call from Carolyn Porco.
PHRED SALAZAR: One of dad's students.
SHOEMAKER: Yes, Carolyn told me that the spacecraft Lunar Prospector was about to go to the moon. She hated to bring it up too abruptly, but would I consider having Gene's ashes go in a capsule on the rocket? It was an easy decision, and he always wanted to be on the moon. And so I knew that Gene would be just elated if he could go to the moon at last. I miss him every day. But to this day, you know, I look up at the moon and I can imagine him up there running around, looking at craters. Just knowing his joy in it...
SHOEMAKER: ...Gave me, still does, a lot of joy.
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GREENE: Dr. Carolyn Shoemaker and her son-in-law Phred Salazar in Flagstaff, Ariz. Their conversation will be archived in the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.