In 1995, I crossed the dangerous Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia for a third time. On this expedition Gene Shoemaker, the father of astrogeology and only human buried on the Moon*, joined the Third Zahid Expedition (https://www.empty-quarter.com). Together we spent five days and six nights at the Wabar meteorite impact site, mapping it geologically and magnetically. We even collected thermoluminescence samples to definitively age-date the impact. We published several scientific papers (including the November 1998 issue of Scientific American) showing that a 3,500-ton iron-nickel asteroid hit the sand at 7 to 10 kilometers per second. In milliseconds it delivered a kinetic energy blast equivalent to a Hiroshima atom bomb.
So… What does this have to do with marriage?
On the way back, both of us exhausted from the 17-hour drive and the high temperatures, Gene and I were standing beside our Hummer vehicle in the late afternoon sun while the engineers refilled the tanks for the final run back into Riyadh. We had talked hypervelocity impact physics and geology for days – what really happens when a 3,500-ton iron body detonates on impact? After six days, however, we had run out of technical things to talk about. While staring into the eastern desert Gene parenthetically mentioned that he and his wife Carolyn had been married for 46 years – and that they were both surprised that “it just keeps getting better and better – we are just happier and happier together than ever before in our marriage.”
This struck me for several reasons. For one, Louise and I had been married 27 years by that point, and we had gone through some very hard times. Huh, I thought: there’s hope for us yet. Another thing I had noticed by then – and Gene confirmed it for me from his experience – was that couples who had been married many decades all seemed to be happy. As a general rule, when one died, the other was not long in following. Could these two things be related? Could this all be part of a Larger Plan?
When I was first married, I slowly began to notice an interesting thing about Louise. Without ever saying anything about it, she was always doing something small and thoughtful for me. The better portion of food. Making the bed. Insisting I had the better pillow. Doing the dishes if I didn’t get to it quick enough. There were so many small things that I began to notice. After about a year (I’m slow in a number of ways) I mentioned this to her. She seemed surprised and had to think for a bit before she responded. “I love you,” she said.
A lot of the problems we had in the later, middle part of our marriage could be attributed to a relatively simple thing. I had decided, after we had nearly run out of cash several times, and once were afraid to even take a very sick baby to a doctor, that my primary responsibility was to provide. I was the husband – I needed to make sure I earned enough to support my growing little family. I developed a habit of working routine 55-hour weeks. I travelled extensively for field work – weeks at a time. I had become wedded to something else – my work. My duty.
I said I am slow at some things. It took me years to come to a very simple decision: Louise came first. My work, my personal and professional goals, even the kids were secondary to anything that I might do that would make Louise happy. It became the core of my existence.
This morning I waited in the van to drive her to an appointment. She got in, and as we started driving, she said “You are always so kind to me.” Huh? “What did I do?” I asked. “You opened the door for me so with all these things in my hands it was easier for me to get in. And now you’re driving me to an appointment.”
It’s become so ingrained for each of us, that neither of us takes any thought other than to do kind and considerate things – small acts – whenever the opportunity presents itself.
And Gene was right: we are so much happier, after 52 years together now, than we were even when first married. We worry about our kids and grandkids together. We share interesting news stories. We prefer to walk together, even though we have different paces. We ask the other first if it’s OK to spend money on something. It doesn’t matter if the other says “Of course – you don’t have to ask!” Kindness and thoughtfulness for the other always comes first.
It is my prayer – my expectation in fact – that when one of us passes to the Other Side, the other won’t have to wait around, lonely, for very long.
* January 6, 1998, NASA release: Lunar spacecraft carries ashes, special tribute to Shoemaker
There could be no finer tribute to the legendary planetary geologist who said his greatest unfulfilled dream was to go to the moon.
Tonight, the ashes of Eugene M. Shoemaker are to be launched in a memorial capsule aboard Lunar Prospector to the moon. The polycarbonate capsule, one-and-three-quarters inches long and seventh-tenths inch in diameter, is carried in a vacuum-sealed, flight-tested aluminum sleeve mounted deep inside the spacecraft.
Around the capsule is wrapped a piece of brass foil inscribed with an image of a Comet Hale-Bopp, an image of Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, and a passage from William Shakespeare's enduring love story, "Romeo and Juliet":
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.
Shoemaker was best known for his work on extraterrestrial impacts and for his later collaboration with his wife, Carolyn, in the study and discovery of comets. He was long a distinguished scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Flagstaff, Ariz., where he established the agency's astrogeology branch. He was killed July 18, 1997, in a car accident in Alice Springs, Australia, during field research on impact crater geology. Carolyn Shoemaker was injured in the accident.
"I don't think Gene ever dreamed his ashes would go to the moon," Carolyn Shoemaker said shortly before leaving to witness the Lunar Prospector launch. "He would be thrilled."
The Shoemakers' children and their spouses, as well as a sister and brother-in-law, are also at Cape Canaveral for the event.
"This is so important to us," Carolyn Shoemaker said. "It brings a little closure, in a way, to our feelings. We will always know when we look at the moon, that Gene is there."