02/18/2013 06:59 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

Asteroids and Ancestors

It may seem far-fetched to claim that the meteor that exploded above Siberia last week deserves a footnote in the memoir I'm writing of my late parents, both prominent writers, but it's true.

My paternal grandfather, Joseph Eisele, was born in Bavaria and came to this country as a young man with his family in the 1880's, settling first in Illinois, where my father was born in 1897, and then to a farm in Iowa, where he grew up before marrying my mother and moving to Minnesota.

The Russian meteor, the first to hit the earth since 1908, occurred just as I was researching my family history by reading an article in the July 19, 1992 New York Times travel section about the Swabian Alb, the mountain range south of Stuttgart, where my grandfather came from.

Deep down in the article was something that caught my attention. It was about another town, Nordlinger, not far from my grandfather's hometown, which was "the site of an intriguing event that literally shook the world nearly 15 million years ago." The "intriguing event" was one of the largest meteorites ever to strike the Earth. Its cataclysmic impact created a crater or depressed "plate" some 16 miles in diameter, which the town sits in the middle of.

"The missile from space, in all likelihood, an asteroid from the belt between Mars and Jupiter, had a diameter of half a mile and crashed with the force of 250,000 Hiroshima-type bombs," the Times article noted. "As it bored into the ground it vaporized five cubic miles of stone into steam, melted and pulverized another 250 billion tons of rock, and caused a mushroom cloud 12 miles high. Animal and plant life within a radius of 300 miles perished. And it all happened within seconds." (Later computer modeling showed the meteorite was traveling at 45,000 mph., and exploded with the force of 1.8 million Hiroshima bombs.)

According to the article, the cause of the "plate" was one of the great mysteries of geological science" until 1960, when two Americans with the U.S. Geological Survey, Eugene Shoemaker and Edward Chao, finally solved it by finding the presence of coesite, a form of quartz that can only be formed by the enormous shock pressures associated with a meteorite impact. The quartz was quarried from the area and used in construction of many of the town's medieval buildings. The meteorite's impact on a graphite deposit also created nearly 80,000 tons of tiny diamonds that are imbedded in the town's quartz building blocks.

The website credits the two American geologists with being "the first to produce conclusive evidence that planet Earth had been bombarded by asteroids throughout its formative history, and that there was a very real likelihood of such an event occurring in the future."

I also discovered several intriguing things about Shoemaker when I googled him up. He helped pioneer the field of astrogeology by founding the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Research Program in 1961 at Flagstaff, Arizona, and was its first director. He later taught at CalTech and helped train the first Apollo astronauts, and appeared as a commentator with CBS News' Walter Cronkite on his live coverage of the early Apollo missions.

But that's not the most intriguing thing I learned about him, which was what happened after he was killed in an automobile accident in 1997 at age 69 while studying impact craters near Alice Springs, Australia. He had hoped to become the first geologist to land on the Moon but was disqualified for health reasons. But his wish was fulfilled two years later when colleagues arranged for some of his ashes to be deposited there by the Lunar Prospector space probe, making him the only person whose ashes are buried on the moon.

Oh yes, there's one other interesting thing I learned while researching my family history, but it has nothing to do with asteroids. In 2009, two of my cousins, Catholic priests in Iowa, visited my grandfather's Bavarian birthplace, where they discovered that his mother's name was Anna Rosenbaum, which means I have a Jewish great-grandmother.

Sadly, when they asked the archivist at the local Catholic church who showed them my grandfather's family records if any of the Rosenbaum family still lived there, she replied, "Oh no, they all died in the Holocaust."