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Remembering Carolyn Shoemaker

September 15, 2021

I met Carolyn Shoemaker in 1999, right in the middle of my graduate school career, when Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) hosted Space Week, to honor George Low (Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office and 14th president of RPI) and other explorers of space. Our list of speakers and attendees included John Young (Apollo 16 astronaut and commander of STS-1, the first space shuttle mission); Harrison “Jack” Schmitt (Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist); Grace Mary Corrigan (mother of Challenger astronaut Christa McAuliffe); Stephanie Wilson (at the time an astronaut candidate but now a veteran of three shuttle flights); and Carolyn Shoemaker, among others.

Carolyn immediately accepted our invitation to speak and we excitedly planned her itinerary to include a student meet-and-greet, a visit to our campus observatory, and the public talk. She spoke passionately about her life exploring the skies, discovering and documenting the locations of hundreds of asteroids and numerous comets. She spoke lovingly of her children and her deceased husband, Gene Shoemaker, who helped train the Apollo astronauts prior to their Moon landings. Both Shoemakers, along with David Levy, identified the “string of pearls”, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, that crashed into Jupiter in 1994, focusing the attention of most Earth- and space-based telescopes on this never-before-seen phenomenon. We have now witnessed several comet-planet collisions. Carolyn’s enthusiasm for space exploration was apparent and it’s stuck with me all these years.

Carolyn Shoemaker passed away on August 13, 2021, at the age of 92. Though she never really considered herself a scientist, we honor her contributions to advancing our field. Share your memories below and read more about her life and legacy at the following sites:

Planetary News, by Lisa Gaddis (Lunar and Planetary Institute) and Mary Chapman (US Geological Survey)

Nature, by David Levy (Jarnac Observatory)

Astronomy, by Caitlyn Buongiorno

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