Clark Family Gathers to Remember Fallen Astronaut

Clark Family Gathers to Remember Fallen Astronaut

Four years ago, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, M.D., visited the class that Meg Clark was teaching at Waynewood Elementary School. She came to talk about the space program. The children asked all kinds of questions like, “What's Mars like?” “What's it like to be in a spaceship?” “How long does it take to get there?” “What's it like it space?'

Laurel tried to explain that she hadn't been up in space yet; she was still in training, but the children kept asking.

"She just laughed with me," said Meg, who is Laurel's husband's sister. "She was so gentle."

Laurel Clark finally got her chance to go up in space; she just never got a chance to answer the children's questions.

On Saturday, Feb. 1, Clark was one of seven astronauts who died as the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in flames on re-entry to earth after spending several days at the International Space Station. She would have been 42 in March.

The last time Meg spoke to Laurel, she said, "Aren't you nervous?" Laurel's response was "No, I'm so excited. I can't wait to go. I can't wait to get there."

"I feel better knowing that she was so anxious to go to space," said Meg. "It's just a sad loss of an incredibly intelligent person."

ALTHOUGH THE CHILDREN in Meg's current class hadn't met Laurel, they were very tuned into the space shuttle's mission. They watched the lift-off in class. Meg wasn't there; she and her husband, Rafael Iboleon, and her children, Rocky, Bailey and Tristan, went down to Florida to see it. "It was so exciting," they reported.

During the mission, the class tuned in every day to the NASA station. "We left it on mute, and whenever we saw Laurel, we stopped to watch. We talked about what experiments she was doing that day," said Meg, who felt that this gave her a connection to Laurel's mission. "She was grinning from ear to ear, and I thought, she is having so much fun." You could just tell she loved what she was doing."

On the newsletter that Meg sends home every Friday, she wrote, "Don't forget to watch the landing."

Those students, who watched along with the rest of the world, soon found out that there would be no landing.

Meg wouldn't be back in class for another week; on Sunday she boarded a plane for Houston to be with her brother, Jon Clark; her sister, Vicky Berkemeyer; and her brother, David Clark.

Meg said that they had never planned to go to Florida for the landing. Meg said that when the shuttle lands in Cape Canaveral, the astronauts are only there for a short time, and then they go right to Houston, so you really can't see them. Besides, nobody ever worries about re-entry. It was the lift-off that everybody was worried about. With the Israeli astronaut on board, there were concerns about terrorism, and then there was a slight mechanical problem, which caused the mission to be delayed from July to January. Meg wonders, "What if it had gone when it was supposed to?"

Meg learned that something had happened along with everybody else. She said that Jon knew right away; he works for NASA doing neurological testing on the astronauts. When they lost contact with the shuttle, he knew immediately that something was wrong.

LAST SATURDAY, the Clarks gathered to remember Laurel. They gathered here in Mount Vernon, because this is where Laurel's husband, Jon, is from. Jon's sisters, Meg and Vicky, were there; Jon's brother, David, was there. Teachers, administrators and students from Waynewood Elementary School were there, as were other family members and friends. They all gathered at Aldersgate United Methodist Church for "A Celebration of the Life of Laurel Blair Salton Clark, M.D."

The Rev. Stephen T. Vineyard offered to hold the service there. Meg's younger children go to preschool at Aldersgate, and one of Vineyard's children, Caleb, is in Meg's class.

"We'd like to do a service for your family," he told Meg.

At the service, the Rev. Dr. Dennis W. Perry spoke about how everybody should offer each other strength, and how they should remember Laurel's courage, brilliant mind and connection to children.

Vineyard asked the elementary children to raise their hands. He said that it's good to come to God when things are hard to understand. Then he spoke about how Laurel was an explorer, how she loved to go hiking and exploring. He mentioned that animals were one of Laurel's loves, as were flowers. She had beautiful gardens and loved the colors pink and purple. Thus, her nickname, Floral.

"She loved NASA, she loved exploring, she loved being involved in a cause and she loved doing experiments. She loved being on the cutting edge of science and research," said Vineyard.

He read some excerpts from her last e-mail from space:

<lst>"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 have seen some incredible sights: lightning spreading over the Pacific, the aurora australis lighting up the entire visible horizon with the city glow of Australia below, the crescent moon setting over the limb of the Earth, the vast plains of Africa and the dunes on Cape Horn.

"I have seen my 'friend' Orion several times. Taking photos of the Earth is a real challenge, but a steep learning curve. I think I have finally gotten some beautiful shots the last two days. Keeping my fingers crossed that they're in sharp focus.

"Thanks to many of you who have supported me and my adventures throughout the years. This was definitely one to beat all. I hope you could feel the positive energy that beamed to the whole planet as we glided over our shared planet.

“Love to all, Laurel."

<bt>AND THEN CAME THE TRIBUTES. Laurel's husband, Jon, said, "I grew up in this area, and it's a tremendous source of joy to come here and spend time. It's been a very emotional time for all of us."

Jon went on to speak about his wife, saying, "I'm always at a loss for words to describe my wife. She could put a positive spin on anything — she was always so uplifting."

He corroborated what Vineyard had said earlier about her love of nature, love of hiking. Jon said that when they went hiking, he and Iain would always be in a hurry to get there. "Laurel would make us stop and enjoy the grandeur of the park.

"She meant so much to all of us, and this mission was significant. It was a diverse crew with many different Christian faiths. To capture her essence is impossible."

Meg spoke about her coming to her class and about her last conversation with her. Vicky talked about how overwhelmed she feels by all the support she's received from friends, neighbors and strangers.

David said that when he arrived in Houston, he felt like he was on the set of “Apollo 13.” "A great love has been lost, and a season has ended," he said.

Perry ended the service, saying, "You are an extraordinary family." He didn't mention the fact that the Clarks had lost their mother during Christmas 2000, and their father last June, on the day that would have been their parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

At a reception afterward, the Clarks visited with friends. The reception was coordinated by Carol Bolger, with platters of food coming from the well-wishers and set up by volunteers from Aldersgate and Waynewood Elementary School.