Eugene Shoemaker, Astrogeology Pioneer

Early Life and Career
Latter Career

Early Life and Career

Gene Shoemaker was born April 28, 1928 in Los Angeles, California. He spent the next 69 years of his life not only expanding our knowledge of the Earth, but ultimately, he expanded our knowledge of every other celestial body within our Solar System. Shoemaker grew up in Buffalo, New York and in Southern California, the child of educators. A precocious student, he advanced well ahead of his peers as a schoolboy and completed high school at the age of 15. Along the way he picked up a love of rocks and minerals during family trips to the American southwest.

Gene Shoemaker lecturing in the field during the training of the Apollo Astronauts. Photo courtesy of the United States Geological Survey.

His outstanding performance in high school earned him a spot at the prestigious California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech), as a geology major. The drive and ambition that had served him well throughout school did not falter while at Cal Tech. Shoemaker earned both his BS and MS in Geology together in three short years.

Gene Shoemaker’s first job out of college was as a United States Geological Survey (USGS) geologist prospecting for Uranium during the post World War II atomic energy boom. His designated search area was the desert southwest in the four corners region, primarily in New Mexico and Arizona. While there, he honed what would become a lifelong commitment to fieldwork. He learned the subtle differences between the various volcanic rocks throughout the region. He also visited the famous Meteor Crater in Arizona and postulated that it was the result of an asteroid impact. It was during this time that he began another lifelong commitment; he married Carolyn Spellman in 1951.

During the mid 1950’s, Gene became more and more interested in the moon. His study of earthly craters had led him to view the lunar landscape as shaped primarily by asteroid impacts. The common view at the time was that the moons craters were volcanic. Though he petitioned the USGS to create a geologic map of the moon, his primary work remained the search for Uranium. While studying craters left by nuclear weapons tests in the Nevada desert as part of his responsibilities, Shoemaker made discoveries that finally led to the jump from uranium prospecting to the full time study of impact craters. Shoemaker is credited with the discovery of the mineral coesite (a variety of quartz shocked by impact) at both the nuclear test craters and at the Meteor Crater in Arizona.

Meteor Crater, Arizona, where Shoemaker earned his PhD and formulated his theories about impact geology.

Over the course of the mid to late 1950’s Shoemaker made many discoveries about the geology of craters, which included lithological and structural indicators to a craters presence and origin. Some of the most important discoveries enabled scientists to easily distinguish volcanic craters from impact craters, even after significant structural alteration. Shoemaker's work culminated in 1960 when he was awarded a PhD from Princeton for his work on Meteor Crater in Arizona.


After his groundbreaking studies were published, the Survey finally relented to his repeated requests. In 1961, Gene Shoemaker founded the Astrogeology Center of the USGS in Flagstaff, Arizona. This group was primarily involved with study of the geology of the moon leading up to the Apollo Program. From this lab, the first detailed maps of the moon were produced. In addition, as NASA came closer to the goal of landing a man on the moon, Shoemaker was instrumental in training the Astronauts that would be tasked with carrying out research on the moons surface. His team also determined that the lunar surface would in fact be able to support the weight of the lunar lander and astronauts.

Ironically, Shoemaker himself was originally set to be the first scientist on the moon, which would have fulfilled a life long dream. A rare, and relatively minor, adrenal gland disorder disqualified him from serving. So instead he trained his friend and replacement, geologist Harrison Schmitt. Eugene Shoemaker was seated next to Walter Cronkite during the newscasts of the lunar missions while the astronauts were actually on the lunar surface conducting fieldwork.

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Latter Career

Following the Apollo Program, Shoemaker became the chair of the division of Planetary and Geological Sciences at his alma mater, Cal Tech. Over the next 40 years he shifted his attention from the study of craters on the Earth and Moon to the study of the bodies that created them. During the 1970s Shoemaker and many collaborators discovered numerous asteroids and meteors. Shoemaker communicated with Louis Alvarez extensively during Alvarez’s development of the hypothesis that the dinosaurs were killed by an impact by a comet or asteroid with the Earth.

In 1993 Gene Shoemaker along with his wife, astronomer Carolyn Shoemaker and Gene Levy discovered and named the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. The comet became a media sensation when, in 1994, it collided (very photogenically) with Jupiter. The collision started a flurry of discussion about the possible consequences of a comet or asteroid colliding with Earth. As the preeminent expert on both extra terrestrial bodies and their impacts on the Earth and moon, Shoemaker achieved a household celebrity status not seen for a scientist since Carl Sagan.

This is an artists rendition taken from a composite of images of the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter. Photo courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA.

In the 1990s, Shoemaker worked almost exclusively with his wife traveling around the world lecturing and studying. In addition to his position as a professor emeritus at Cal Tech, he took an honorary (though active) position at the Lowell Observatory, and remained active with the USGS. In 1997, while on a trip to Australia, Gene Shoemaker was killed in an auto accident. He frequently visited Australia to study the relatively unweathered craters. Return to Top


Shoemaker once stated that he considered himself a scientific historian, one whose mission in life is to relate geologic and planetary events in a perspective manner. To many others he was a pioneer, single handedly creating the science of planetary geology. The awards and recognition that he received from the many who recognized the impotance of his work are almost too numerous to mention. He was a 1992 recipient of the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor bestowed by the President of the United States. He was also awarded the NASA Medal for Scientific Achievement; U.S. Department of the Interior Honor Award for Meritorious Service; Arthur L. Day Medal of the Geological Society of America; G.K. Gilbert Award of the Geological Society of America; Kuiper Prize of the American Astronomical Society; Distinguished Alumni Award of the California Institute of Technology; U.S. National Medal of Science; Bowie Medal, American Geophysical Union; Special Award, American Association of Petroleum Geologists; Shoemaker Award, Texas Section of the American Institute of Professional Geologists, awarded posthumously, 1997. There were numerous other awards granted by Universities and other nation's scientific institutions.

The most fitting tribute to Gene Shoemaker was bestowed upon him by a former student after he died. Several friends and family, as well as NASA and the JPL, collaborated with Carolyn Porco, a former student and colleague of Shoemakers, to have his ashes placed on the Lunar Prospector module that was to be launched to the moon shortly after his death. In January, 1998 a small capsule containing Eugene M. Shoemakers ashes landed on the lunar surface. Inscribed on the capsule was a portion of a poem from Romeo and Juliet written by Shakespeare. At long last, Eugene M. Shoemaker had landed on the Moon.

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.

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Gene and Carolyne Shoemaker in the late 1980s. This telescope was similar to the one that they used to co-discover comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. Photo courtesy of the USGS.


USGS Biography - Eugene Shoemaker, World Wide Web homepage URL:

NASA Jet Propulsion Lab - Tribute to Gene Shoemaker, World Wide Web homepage URL:

Shoemaker-Levy 9 - JPL , World Wide Web homepage URL:

Ager, Derek., 1993; The New Catastrophism: The Rare Event in Geological History , Cambridge University Press

Shoemaker, Eugene M., 1979; Guidebook to the geology of Meteor Crater, Arizona , Arizona State University Press

Produced for GO 521History of Geology
James Whittington, Spring 2007
Copyright 2007, Emporia State University

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