Juneau physician recalls astronaut as a friend who truly enjoyed life

Posted: Sunday, February 02, 2003

Dr. Laurel Clark, one of seven astronauts to die in the space shuttle Columbia on Saturday, embraced life and heard the music in ordinary things, says Dr. Deb Lessmeier of Juneau, a close friend.

The other astronauts called her Floral Laurel, Lessmeier said.

"She just loved life," Lessmeier said Saturday evening. "And she went into space, but she was so much of the Earth.

"She was so observant. She noticed every flower, every bird. All the things around her, she noticed and got enjoyment from it."

So Lessmeier wasn't surprised to hear Clark speak, in a televised interview from space during the Columbia's trip, of the musical jingling of metal straps and buckles floating in the cabin.

Lessmeier and her family were among Clark's friends and family members the astronaut invited to watch the Columbia's takeoff on Jan. 16 from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Clark, 41, was a close friend dating from medical school days in the mid-1980s at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Clark was in quarantine for a week before the launch, but the astronaut made a video to be shown at a reception for family and friends the night before the launch.

"She made a wonderful video telling us she was happy we were all there ... so we actually got to see Laurel talking to us. It was kind of fun," Lessmeier said.

The launch "was exciting, but it was really tense," she said.

When the space shuttle lifts off in a burst of orange flame, you can feel the rumble in your chest even from the VIP viewing area four miles away, Lessmeier said.

It was "surprisingly emotional" to see the fire and the smoke plume and hear the noise as the shuttle lifted off, "knowing there's a risk."

"Everything was perfect," Lessmeier said of the sunny day, the wetlands landscape around Cape Canaveral, and the launch.

After medical school, Clark studied pediatrics at the Naval hospital in Bethesda, Md., NASA said. She then completed undersea and diving medical officer training, and eventually performed many medical evacuations from submarines, the agency said.

Later Clark underwent aeromedical training and became a Naval flight surgeon. In 1996 she was selected by NASA and became what's called a mission specialist.

Her husband, Jon, a neurologist, also works for NASA, Lessmeier said. Their son, Ian, is 8 years old. The family lives in Houston, Texas.

On this Columbia mission, Clark's first space flight, she worked on a variety of scientific experiments.

Lessmeier said the last time she spoke to Clark, about 10 days before the flight, the astronaut was engrossed in helping Ian with a school science project.

Lessmeier said she talked Saturday morning to another friend of Clark, who said the astronaut told her the shuttle was very safe.

"She felt the way NASA handled everything, it was really quite safe. And really, they've done 113 of these and never had a problem on re-entry," Lessmeier said wistfully.

Lessmeier said Clark was a strong, vibrant, confident person, but humble.

Clark was a woman who dove with Navy SEALS, flew as a surgeon with a Marine night-attack squadron, and went into space. But to Lessmeier what was extraordinary was "she was just so ordinary. She was just a good mom who loved being with her son, loved doing family things. And she was the best person in her (medical school) class to keep up with friends."

Saturday evening Lessmeier thought about a photo she has of six friends, including Clark, taken during a sailing trip after medical school. The photo is captioned with the old saw, "A ship is safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are built for."

"That kind of describes her," Lessmeier said. "She was go-getter - go out and embrace life and follow her joy. She was not one to look at obstacles.

"She never thought this was a possibility."

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