Laurel Clark didn’t really plan to become an astronaut, saying that she was more interested in the environment and animals. She grew up in Racine, Wisconsin and received her bachelor’s and doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Clark joined the Navy when she finished college, and studied to become an Undersea Medical Officer. After two years, she was designated a Naval Submarine Medical Officer and Diving Medical Officer. She received a Navy Commendation Medal with two gold award stars. While she was working as a medical officer with submarines, she started to learn about NASA and thought that the tasks she was doing in her current job were similar to those expected of astronauts.
She then went to the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute to study to become a Naval Flight Surgeon, and applied to become an astronaut in 1994. In 1996, Clark was selected by NASA to begin training to become an astronaut. She completed her two years of training and then worked in the Astronaut Office Payloads/Habitability Branch.
Clark’s first flight to space was aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, on a science and research mission. She helped design the mission insignia, which featured the symbol for microgravity to represent the research being done. The seven member crew conducted around 80 experiments during their 16 days in orbit. Shortly before the end of the mission, Clark sent an email to her family and friends talking about her experiences in space, saying “I hope you could feel the positive energy that beamed to the whole planet as we glided over our shared planet.”
On February 1st, 2003, Columbia broke up upon reentry to Earth’s atmosphere. All seven crew members were lost. The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center renamed their auditorium in honor of Dr. Clark, and craters on both Mars and the Moon have now been named for her and the rest of the Columbia crew. They were awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004.
Written by Mary Ratliff