Carolyn Spellmann Shoemaker
"Become as broad as possible in your astronomical interests and become proficient in the tools you will need...If you know your subject and are willing to work hard, you will be accepted." —Carolyn Spellmann Shoemaker, advice to aspiring female astronomers.
As a child, Carolyn Spellmann Shoemaker admits, she had little interest in science, and thought of astronomy as a field "relegated to only old men in white beards, smoking pipes and staring at the sky."
Yet by 1996, she had firmly established her reputation as an internationally known planetary astronomer by discovering a record-breaking 32 comets, including the famous Shoemaker-Levy 9, and more than 800 asteroids.
With her late husband Gene, she has also mapped craters on Earth to research the effect that asteroid impacts may have had on life and the environment. She is the most prolific comet-discoverer in the world, and a leading planetary astronomer. All this is made even more remarkable by her relatively late entry into the field.
As Shoemaker tells the story, "I came to astronomy at age 51 after my three children had left home and when I was looking for something fulfilling to do. I asked my husband, Gene, who could and did spend most of his time working in geology and planetary science, for suggestions. It was he who thought I might be interested in the telescopic search for near-Earth asteroids. I slid gradually into planetary astronomy as a field, while working on his search program."
Born Carolyn Jean Spellmann in 1929 in Gallup, New Mexico, the future "Comet Queen" moved to Chico as a child. She graduated from Chico High in 1946 and by 1950 had earned degrees in history and political science from Chico State, along with a teaching credential. After a brief stint teaching seventh grade, she met Eugene Shoemaker, who had been her brother's roommate at CalTech. They married in 1951, and Carolyn began a career as wife and mother while Eugene completed his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1960. The family settled eventually in Flagstaff, Arizona, where Eugene—a pioneer in the field of astrogeology— helped found the Astrogeology Research Program through the United States Geological Service.
Thirty years later, when Carolyn stepped into a second career in the field of planetary astronomy, she said she…
"…loved it for the opportunity to keep on learning new things each day. Of course, the thrill of discovery of both asteroids and comets gave me a deep satisfaction."
Carolyn soon became a research assistant at the California Institute of Technology, and then a research professor of astronomy at Northern Arizona University. In 1993, she joined the staff of the Lowell Observatory. At the Palomar Observatory, she developed new stereoscopic techniques that enable researchers to scan twice as much of the sky as they previously could. She has received numerous awards, including the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal (1996), an honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff (1990) and designation as a Cloos Scholar at Johns Hopkins University (1990). She is also co-recipient with her husband of the Scientists of the Year Award (1995), the Rittenhouse Medal (1988), and James Craig Watson Medal (1998).
Yet she cites the co-discovery (with her husband and David Levy) of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 as "the most satisfying and significant achievement of my life in astronomy." First discovered orbiting Jupiter in March, 1993, Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with that planet sixteen months later. This discovery held important implications for the potential impact of near-Earth comets and asteroids.
Whether she is patiently scrutinizing photographic plates and films to find new comets and asteroids, continuing the work of her late husband in mapping impact craters, or lecturing around the world in the hopes of "inspir[ing] a new generation of comet-hunters and/or astronomers," Carolyn Shoemaker continues to demonstrate a passion for and dedication to her work. This dedication is perhaps summed up best in her own words from 2001: "I don't have time to retire. I have too much to do."