photo of astronomer Carolyn Shoemaker at her telescope

Carolyn S. Shoemaker 1929 —

Growing up in New Mexico and California, Carolyn Spellmann Shoemaker had great views of the night sky. While impressed by its grandeur, she didn’t seriously consider a career in astronomy. After graduation from Chico State College, she taught seventh grade but did not find her career choice particularly fulfilling.

At her brother’s wedding in 1950, Carolyn met the man she would marry and who would help her reach the stars. Gene Shoemaker was then a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. They married and Carolyn worked at home to raise their three children. Once the children were on their own, Carolyn looked for her next adventure.

She found it in 1969 by working with her husband on a project to find earth-approaching asteroids. Carolyn’s job was to study a series of photographic plates of the night sky using a special instrument that reveals asteroids and comets as they change position against the far distant stars. The grueling task demands patience, profound attention to detail, and an ability to visualize depth and distance. Carolyn possessed all these qualities and soon became adept at picking out asteroids and comets. Her most famous discovery, made in concert with her husband and David Levy, was Shoemaker-Levy 9. This 1992 comet made the news by heading straight at the planet Jupiter. The comet’s spectacular finale was caught on telescopic cameras and suddenly, Carolyn and her partners were front page headlines.

Carolyn has held the record for most comets discovered by an individual and was awared the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1996.

“Motherhood teaches patience for detail.”

Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

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