The date was Feb. 1, 2003 and the Knicks were returning to Milwaukee barely over a year since their last visit, when Latrell Sprewell scored 48 points and Allan Houston added 34 in a win over the Bucks. I was Newsday’s beat writer on the Knicks and was looking forward to the game because “Spree” grew up in Milwaukee and had a habit of playing well when he returned home.
But when I woke up that morning and turned on the TV, I witnessed news of the Columbia space shuttle disaster. Seven American astronauts returning from a mission to the International Space Station died on re-entry when their spacecraft disintegrated because foam insulation that broke off during launch hit the left wing of the orbiter and the damage exposed the wing to searing 2800-degree temperatures that caused the craft to break apart over Texas.
Before I headed to that game, my phone rang, and my sports editor told me that editors on news side wanted me to remain in Milwaukee to dig up whatever information I could get on astronaut Laurel Clark, a doctor who grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, a city just south of Milwaukee.
I covered an unremarkable game that Saturday night when the Knicks suffered a 107-100 loss despite a 31-point performance by Houston. Sprewell scored only nine points and shot 3-for-14.
But I learned there would be a memorial service the next day for Clark at the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church in Racine. All the other Knicks beat writers headed for the airport on Sunday and flew home. I drove 30 miles south to Racine and parked a few blocks away from the church near William Horlick High School in Racine, where Clark attended.
I walked to the church and monitored the memorial service that Sunday, where pastor Tony Larson said of Clark, “She was one of the kindest, most vivacious people.” He had officiated at her marriage to Jonathan Clark, who also was a doctor.
I also connected with Clark’s social studies teacher in high school, Bill Frayer, who said of Clark, who was valedictorian of her class, “I’ve been teaching 34 years and you only see a student that sticks out every so often. It was the way she spoke, the way she carried herself and the way she did the work. You know this was someone who really will amount to something.”
At that same service, the pastor introduced Clark’s brother. He was on his way out of the service, but I introduced myself and told him I was from Newsday on Long Island, and he agreed to an interview later at his home in Milwaukee. His name was Dan Salton, and he gave me a great interview while his wife, June, sat close by. Dan explained that his sister’s full name was Laurel Blair Salton Clark.
She was a mission specialist who was conducting biological experiments, and she also was a Navy captain and a flight surgeon.
Her brother told me a phenomenal story about their childhood. They were part of a blended family that included five kids from her father’s side and four kids from her stepmother’s side. They were allowed only one hour per week to watch TV, and they chose to watch “Star Trek.”
I did not write any stories. Newsday had several reporters spread over the country and also contacted freelancers. I simply provided a notes file that our great writer Hugo Kugiya used for two stories, a 1200-word remembrance of the astronauts two days after they died and a 4700-word tribute the following Sunday.
Here is an anecdote Kugiya included about Laurel Salton Clark based on the information I provided. Laurel’s brother Dan played the part of Captain Kirk, another brother played Spock, and Laurel played Dr. McCoy even though she was a woman. She wanted to be a doctor, and she achieved that goal.
Her brother, Dan Salton said, “We’d set up chairs. The living room was the bridge. The room in back of that was the engine room. I always played Scotty.”
As Kugiya wrote, “Clark was a straight-A student, a doctor married to a doctor. She joined the Navy, jumped out of airplanes and went diving with SEALs, the Navy’s elite commandos.
“She worked aboard submarines and rockets. She knew the Latin names of most birds. She was a star in most circles. But among elite astronauts, she was merely typical – though she proved particularly agile in simulated weightlessness, once pretending to surf on the back of another astronaut.”
I also reported that Clark told her hometown newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, that she playfully said of the heat in the shuttle, “A pina colada would have been really nice. It was warmer, but we got along just fine.”
Clark also spoke to the Journal-Sentinel about the biological experiments she conducted on the mission, describing a moth in a silkworm experiment this way: “It still had its wings crumpled up, and it was just starting to pump its wings up. Life continues in lots of places, and life is a magical thing.”
Clark also described what it looked like to see sunsets on Earth from the vantage point of space: “There’s a flash. The whole payload bay turns this rosy pink. It only lasts about 15 seconds, and then, it’s gone. It’s very ethereal and extremely beautiful.”
Those words were among Laurel Clark’s final observations while orbiting Earth.
As a child growing up when space travel first became reality, it was my privilege and honor to chronicle the life of Laurel Salton Clark as best I could for Newsday, even though Hugo Kugiya got the byline. He is a great writer and totally deserved credit for the stories, but I honestly felt honored to be able to contribute information about a great American hero from our space program that I loved from the time I was a kid watching Alan Shepard lift off as the first American astronaut.