Wisconsin native remembered on anniversary of Columbia space shuttle disaster

Wisconsin native remembered on anniversary of Columbia space shuttle disaster
Credit: NASA

NASA will take time Thursday to remember seven astronauts who died on board the space shuttle Columbia 15 years ago. A Wisconsin native and UW-Madison alumni was on the spacecraft when it broke apart trying to land at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Laurel Clark was a U.S. Navy captain and medical doctor. She was selected by NASA in 1996. She spent 16 days in 2003 on the Columbia shuttle, conducting some of the 80 experiments with her crew members.

The mission ended abruptly, though, on Feb. 1, 2003, when the shuttle was returning. It never landed. Instead, 16 minutes before it was scheduled to touch down, it exploded and broke apart as it entered Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board.

Laurel’s husband, Dr. Jonathan Clark, and their 8-year-old son were waiting for her arrival. They were whisked away by escorts, assigned to each of the astronaut’s family members, and were later told the shuttle broke apart and it was not survivable.

Dr. Clark, a space shuttle crew surgeon and former chief of the medical operations branch at Johnson Space Center, became part of the NASA spacecraft survival integrated investigation team in 2004, looking at what happened to the astronauts and how they perished.

“Actually, it was very beneficial because there was a lot of emotion. Everybody, all of NASA, was very touched by the Columbia mishap, but you resolve to make it something you can learn from and move on,” Dr. Clark said.

He said their son Iain is still grieving in his own way, but Laurel’s spirit lives on in Iain’s daughter, Laurel.

“She’s just the cutest little thing ever. She actually looks like Laurel. She’s got curly, dark hair and everything. So life goes on in its own strange way. And Laurel used to always say this, “‘Life is a magical thing,'” and so that’s our life now,” Dr. Clark said.

Laurel grew up in Racine. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1983 and doctorate in medicine from the university in 1987. She’s forever remembered at UW’s Alumni Park.

“Laurel always hoped she would be a role model for future generations. I hope this anniversary gives young people a chance to learn her story and follow their dreams of science and exploration, just as Laurel did,” Tod Pritchard, with the Wisconsin Foundation & Alumni Association, said.

Dr. Clark shares that message. He said Laurel understood the dangers of space exploration and the importance of it. That’s helped his family carry on.

“Part of that is to realize and accept that sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want to, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on your dream and we certainly haven’t. And if we did, Laurel would come down from heaven and kick our butts,” he said.