She was willing to put her life on the line for medicine, science, and humankind.
By: Linnea Crowther
1 year ago
“Hello from above our magnificent planet Earth. The perspective is truly awe-inspiring. This is a terrific mission, and we are very busy doing science 'round the clock. … I hope you could feel the positive energy that beamed to the whole planet as we glided over our shared planet.”
Astronaut Laurel Clark, born March 10, 1961, emailed those words from more than 172 miles above the Earth, beaming them down to eager readers Jan. 31, 2003, as she participated in a research mission aboard the space shuttle Columbia. In the rest of her chatty email, she described the sights she was taking in from above, including “the Aurora Australis lighting up the entire visible horizon with the city glow of Australia below” and her own home county in Wisconsin, which she was delighted to pass over on her very first day in space. She explained some of the unexpected challenges of living without gravity, and she offered thanks to her friends, family, and colleagues.
The day after she sent her email, Feb. 1, Clark and her crewmates were gone. Columbia, on its way to landing, broke apart upon re-entry, falling to Earth in pieces and killing all seven astronauts on board.
The Columbia crew had been in space for 16 days when they died, working 24 hours a day in two shifts to conduct a wide variety of experiments to help advance our understanding of how life in space differs from life on Earth, as well as experiments on new technologies to be developed for use on Earth. Clark’s background as a medical doctor brought valuable insight to her research – as did her hobby of gardening.
Clark’s experiments varied, from investigating how weightlessness affects the respiratory system to hatching moths to nurturing roses aboard the shuttle. “It was so, so magical to have roses growing in our laboratory in space,” she remarked as she videotaped the blooms as part of a commercial fragrance experiment.
Clark gardened at home, and that experience informed her work aboard Columbia. But so did her years of professional training. Clark was a medical doctor, but she wasn’t the stereotypical family practitioner or driven surgeon. Instead, Clark’s years in medical school coincided with her U.S. Navy career, and she found herself training via the Navy and specializing in undersea medicine and medical evacuation from submarines and other below-water situations. In the second phase of her training, she became a flight surgeon, one who deployed overseas and used her unique skills to practice medicine in unusual places. Whether she was underwater or high above Earth, Clark was comfortable doing her job as a doctor.
That put her in a good position to join a NASA mission, and she began her training there in 1996. Her mission on Columbia – officially designated STS-107 – was much delayed, initially intended to launch in 2000, allowing extensive time for Clark and her fellow astronauts to train and to reinforce that training, leaving them rigorously prepared for their flight.
As the astronauts planned for their mission, Clark played a significant role in designing the mission patch, the unique insignia that represented their trip to space on Columbia. Clark chose most of the patch’s design elements, including the constellation of Columba, the Latin word for dove. The seven-star constellation represented the seven astronauts on board, as well as the name of the shuttle, the concept of peace across nations (one of the mission’s astronauts was a member of Israel’s space program), and a connection via the dove to the ancient explorers the Argonauts.
Among Clark’s other pre-mission preparations was designating an item to bring into space from an organization that was meaningful to her. Each astronaut had that same opportunity, one that brings unique prestige to the organizations so honored. Clark chose the Naval Undersea Medical Institute, where she had conducted a portion of her training. They designed a unique T-shirt to send into space with her.
Other items from Earth that went to space with Clark included two CDs by the Scottish band Runrig. Clark was a fan, and she set their song “Running Into the Light” as an onboard wake-up call. When debris from the crash was explored, Clark’s copies of the CDs were recovered – one of them in the ship’s CD player, apparently the last music the crew ever listened to. One of the CDs was presented later to the members of Runrig by Clark’s family. They offered a tribute in return when they included a recording of her voice on their 2016 song, “Somewhere.”
Born March 10, 1961, in Iowa, Clark grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, and considered it her home. In addition to being a doctor and an astronaut, she was a wife and mother; husband Jonathan and son Iain survive her. When Columbia crashed, Iain was just 8, a boy who had been very close to his mother. Jonathan Clark told Fox News in a retrospective 10 years later that, in the days after the accident, Iain said to him, "I want to invent a time machine."
One artifact that survived the crash may be the next closest thing: It’s an upbeat video, recorded by Clark as Columbia began to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, in the last minutes before the shuttle heated up to the point that the crew knew their fate. Clark and her crewmates are happy and confident in the video, laughing and joking. They note the heat of re-entry and the bright flashes outside the shuttle, but they’re lighthearted about these things, talking about the beauty of the light rather than its danger. Clark pans the camera around to the other astronauts, eliciting a wave from Kalpana Chawla. She then turns it on herself and smiles at the viewer. When the camera fails, we're left with impressions of the crew's joy and camaraderie – and of the terrible beauty of spaceflight.
In Clark’s honor, the Laurel Clark Environmental Education Fund was established at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, an institution she loved to visit.