This is a story of comets, craters, outer space and a man who forever changed the night sky. More than anything else, it's a love story.
In the summer of 1950, Carolyn Spellmann was a college student living in California. It was there where she would first meet her future husband and science partner, Eugene Shoemaker. "He came to be my brother's best man at his wedding," Carolyn recalled. "He came there, and I opened the back door, and there was Gene."
Photo: Eugene Shoemaker pictured in 1994 with a series of images of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact with Jupiter. Seated next to his wife Carolyn.
After a year of sending each other long-distance letters, the loved-up pair got married. After a while, Gene would encourage Carolyn to step behind a telescope, sparking a lifelong passion and profession. Carolyn went on to become a celebrated astronomer, and even held the Guinness World Record for the greatest number of comets discovered by an individual. "That earned me the nickname of Mrs. Comet," said Carolyn.
While Carolyn focused her research on comets and near-Earth asteroids, her husband was interested in the things that asteroids created - craters. "He always thought big, and so the origin of the universe was his project," Carolyn said. "The more we found that had craters on them, the more excited he was."
But for Eugene, the moon was always the ultimate goal. "Gene wanted to go to the moon more than anything since he was a very young man," Carolyn said. "Gene felt that putting a man on the moon was a step in science ... He felt that we had a lot to learn about the origin of the moon, and therefore, other planets."
So, in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would be sending a man to the moon before the end of the decade, Eugene's life changed forever. As a geologist dedicated to studying craters, he wanted the chance to stand on the moon, study its surface with his own two hands. As a geologist who specialized in studying craters - he had a promising chance of joining the mission.
Then his medical test results came back. Shoemaker had Addison’s disease, an uncommon disorder that affects the adrenal glands. There was no possibility of him reaching the earth’s only satellite now.
The news was one of the great disappointments of Shoemaker’s life, Carolyn said to CNN’s Great Big Story. He “felt like his goal had suddenly disappeared.” Still, Eugene’s life was full of big achievements. He dedicated himself to training astronauts like Neil Armstrong for their space expeditions. He combined the study of geology and astronomy, helping create the field of planetary science. He co-discovered a comet - Shoemaker-Levy 9 - alongside Carolyn and the astronomer David Levy.
Shoemaker’s life came to a sudden end on July 18, 1997, when he died in a car crash while exploring a meteor crater with his wife in Australia. While she recovered in hospital, Carolyn received a call from NASA. Would she be interested in having some of Eugene’s ashes join the Lunar Prospector mission to the moon?
“I said, ‘Yes … I think that would be wonderful,” she told Great Big Story.
The Prospector took off on January 6, 1998. "The whole family was there to wave Gene goodbye," Carolyn said. When the mission finished, it ran out of fuel and crashed near the moon’s South Pole. The impact created its own crater where Shoemaker’s ashes remain today. He had, finally, made it to where he had always dreamed of going.