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'I would have much rather had me lose my life'

Columbia widower more focused now on his young son's future

From Miles O'Brien




National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration

(CNN) -- As NASA prepares to return to manned space flight, Columbia widower Jon Clark also has been thinking more about the future and less about the past.

His wife, Laurel Clark, died with six other crew members on February 1, 2003, when the shuttle Columbia burned up during re-entry. Foam from the spacecraft struck Columbia's left wing during launch and later, while it returned to Earth, dangerously hot gases entered the wing and destroyed the vehicle.

Clark, a NASA flight surgeon, is an expert on mission survival and mishap scenarios. After the disaster, he has been engineering the survival of his own family as he and his young son Iain try to fill the space left by Laurel Clark's death.

"I would have much rather had me lose my life," he said. "But sometimes we have to face our worst fears. Her worst fear in life would be to ... not be there for her son and my worst fear would be to be a single parent. Both of those fears materialized."

The disaster prompted the appointment of an independent panel, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, to investigate the tragedy. The 13-member panel found NASA had systematically ignored signs the shuttle was operating unsafely and repeated the mistakes that led to the destruction of Challenger 17 years earlier.

NASA acknowledged its complacency about the space shuttle, which had completed 112 missions before the loss of Columbia.

Managers dismissed, or were never informed of, concerns from lower level engineers. Waivers were regularly issued for shuttle components that did not perform as intended.

After a wrenching overhaul of the shuttle program, and much of the agency, NASA officials say they can safely mount another space shuttle mission.

Laurel Clark, 41, was a physician as well as a commander in the U.S. Navy. She joined NASA in 1996 and the Columbia flight was her first shuttle mission.

She was born in Iowa but considered Racine, Wisconsin, her hometown. She earned a zoology degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she also earned her medical degree.

She was on active duty with the Navy during medical school and after graduating served as a submarine medical officer and later a flight surgeon.

Jon Clark has acknowledged he wasn't as available to his son as he should have been before he lost his wife. After the disaster, things changed. "I was never a good parent with a wife ... and I have to fill a role as a single parent," he said. "I can tell you that this is the hardest job I ever had. Every day you've got to be there ... I had no idea the magnitude of the responsibility."

Recently, Iain came home with a questionnaire that made the boy think not about the past, but his future.

The questionnaire was called What do you want to do with your life?

Clark said his son answered, "I want to go to space."

To that end, Clark said that if his son did one day decide to follow in his mother's footsteps he would tell him: "Go live your dream."

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