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April 27, 2023

USGS Astrogeology raises a toast to the significant contributions made by Eugene (“Gene”) Shoemaker to planetary science, astronaut geologic training, and to the development of the USGS Astrogeology Science Center.

Gene Shoemaker, founder of the Astrogeology Team, at the Grand Canyon
Image: Gene Shoemaker (left) at the Grand Canyon | U.S. Geological Survey (

The Birth of Modern Astrogeology

Often regarded as a founder of modern Planetary Science, Gene Shoemaker began his career with a BS in Geology from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Gene began working with the USGS on the Colorado Plateau, studying uranium deposits in volcanic craters. It was during this time that Gene decided that he wanted to become an astronaut and go to the Moon. And who better than a geologist?

Geologists have a keen ability to interpret what they see around them and understand how it formed and how it got there. What should we expect to find on the Moon? Would we know it if we found it? And as NASA was building a program to get people to the Moon, how would we train non-geologists in geologic field techniques well enough that they can bring back the best representative samples of the lunar surface? With these new questions bubbling in his mind, Gene followed his Master’s degree by completing his PhD at Princeton studying Barringer Meteor Crater in northern Arizona. He mapped Meteor Crater in such detail that he confirmed Daniel Barringer’s theory that it was, in fact, a meteorite impact, and not a steam explosion as many previous geologists and explorers had thought.

Despite his best attempts, Gene was unfortunately excluded from astronaut candidacy for medical reasons. Undeterred, Gene decided to support the Apollo program in other ways: he and a small team of other scientists founded the Astrogeology Research Program in 1960 to investigate the surfaces of other planetary bodies. This program would be the USGS’ planetary science office, and NASA’s “cartography wing” and on-call geologists. Now he had to focus on an even tougher question: how would we train astronauts to view the lunar landscape through a geologic lens, making observations and collecting relevant samples, when they weren’t formally trained in the field as geologists?


A Pair of Shoemakers

Gene was best man at his college roommate’s wedding – a fitting place to meet his future life partner (and his roommate’s sister), Carolyn, for the first time. The two hit it off and were pen pal's while Gene was completing his doctorate at Princeton, and then the two married when Gene was 23.Carolyn focused on raising their 3 children in the beginning, and once they had all grown up started on her own path in planetary science alongside Gene.

A common theme in many of memories from members of Astrogeology was that Gene and Carolyn were inseparable, whether in the course of their scientific work, their appreciation for the beauty of nature, or the construction of a life together.

As Ivo Lucchitta puts it, “It is not easy to view or discuss Carolyn and Gene separately because they formed such a close entity, whether from the family point of view, or for their love of the Colorado Plateau and then their close collaboration in the field of asteroid astronomy.”

USGS Astrogeology Research Scientist Ken Herkenhoff shares, “I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Gene Shoemaker, investigating and mapping the Upheaval Dome impact structure in Utah, and to take some of his classes at Caltech. He was a patient teacher and mentor, as was his wife, Carolyn. One of the courses they taught involved searching for asteroids and comets using the 18" Schmidt camera at Palomar Observatory. Luckily, my partner and I discovered two asteroids, which we got to name after our wives!”

Carolyn herself commented on the remarkable team that she and Gene made in a piece she wrote in 1999: “Without Gene, I would never have known the excitement of planetary science nor have had the opportunities I did to work in that area; without me, he often said, his search for asteroids and comets and then the Australian cratering work would never have been attempted. Together, we could do more than either of us alone.”

Still facing the task of training the Apollo astronauts in Menlo Park, while also raising a family with his wife, an idea struck him. Gene was intimately familiar with Barringer Meteor Crater and many of the captivating features of northern Arizona. What would be a more perfect training ground for Apollo astronauts than among the canyons, cinder cones, and a real-life impact crater? So in 1962, Gene moved Carolyn and the newly formed Astrogeology center to Flagstaff, Arizona, to be among the pine trees and lava flows. Flagstaff soon provided the perfect stomping grounds for astronauts needing to train in simulated lunar fields, but he and Carolyn also adored living close to the beautiful natural landscapes of the southwest, and cherished stargazing under Flagstaff’s characteristic wide-open dark skies.

Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker at Palomar observatory in 1994.
From: Remembering Carolyn S. Shoemaker (1929–2021) | U.S. Geological Survey ( Carolyn Shoemaker at Palomar observatory in 1994.


A historic legacy

Gene’s major contributions to Astrogeology were felt by the entire planetary community. He mapped Meteor Crater in great detail and confirmed for Daniel Barringer that it was, in fact, a meteorite impact and not a steam explosion. As a science team leader on the Clementine mission to survey the lunar surface, Gene led the campaign to image the lunar south pole. At the time, this was a poorly understood region, and to an extent still remains enigmatic, or will until we get samples from Artemis III. Gene was also among the few who proposed that plumes on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, were from volcanoes. We now have images of active volcanism on Io, confirming Gene’s interpretations.

Gene passed doing what he loved, albeit far too soon, in a car crash on his way to conduct field studies at an impact crater in northern Australia. Gene’s major contributions to Astrogeology have been revered by the entire planetary community. For significant advancements in planetary science, Gene remains the only man in history to be buried on the Moon, as his ashes were carried to the surface on the Lunar Prospector spacecraft in 1998, which impacted the Moon in 1999.

We at USGS Astrogeology fondly admire the constant reminders of Gene’s lasting advancements scattered throughout our workplace; we walk into the Shoemaker Building for work, walk past the geologic maps in our hallways drawn by Gene, and see photos of Gene training astronauts in our lobby.

Shoemaker: founder of Astrogeology Science Center
Image: Shoemaker founder of Astrogeology Science Center | U.S. Geological Survey ( 


Happy Birthday to Dr. Shoemaker, the everlasting man on the Moon


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