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NASA Goes Ballistic

The space agency crashed a satellite on the moon in a search for water. It wants to "shoot" a comet.

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Shoemaker was a geologist who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey most of his life. He almost single-handedly founded the field of astrogeology, starting when scientists could not agree on whether most of the moon's craters resulted from impacts or volcanism. By showing conclusively that the 4,000-foot-wide crater near Winslow, Arizona, was formed by the impact of a meteorite, he catapulted forward the study of lunar craters. (Most are now believed to be the result of impacts.) The hole in the ground in Arizona is today known as Meteor Crater.

Shoemaker was interested in anything that could hit a planet or a moon. He surveyed the near-earth objects. In the process, he and his wife, Carolyn, discovered a number of comets, including the fragmented one named for them and David Levy that crashed into Jupiter in 1994 (Smithsonian, June 1994 and January 1995). He died in 1997 in an automobile accident in Australia, where he was — what else? — studying impact craters.

He was unassuming, easygoing, smiling in conversation. At science meetings, he was infinitely patient with the press. From the first time he answered my questions at meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the 1960s to the last time at the Seattle meeting in 1997, he made me feel more at ease in my ignorance than almost any other scientist I've ever met. I hardly knew the man, but when he died, I felt I had lost a friend. I had. We all had.

More than anything else, he had wanted to go to the moon but a medical problem kept him out of the astronaut corps. Now he's there. For all those people all over the world who have ever wanted to trudge those gray sands and look back at the earth, but will never be astronauts, it's nice to know that one of us made it.

By John P. Wiley, Jr.

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