Sunday, February 2, 2003
Albuquerque Father Recalls 'A Fine Lady'
By Leanne Potts
Journal Staff Writer
Robert Salton had gone into the back yard of his Albuquerque home at dawn Saturday to look for his oldest child in the western sky.
A mother's premonition
Two nights before space shuttle Columbia lifted off, Margory Brown bid an emotional farewell to her daughter, Laurel Clark.
"When I said goodbye I knew in my heart that something could go wrong," Brown said Saturday from her home in Tucson. "She said, 'Everything will be fine Mom.'
"That's what you have to go by."
"She was just very full of life," Brown said. "Everything she did, she did with purpose. She always took the most difficult road to get anything accomplished, and did it wanting to do it."
Brown knew about the danger involved, as did her daughter, but it was never dwelled upon, she said.
"I didn't want to focus on that," Brown said. "The thing you have to focus on is that she is doing what she wants to do."
Early Saturday morning Brown received a call from a son, Dan Salton, who lives in Milwaukee.
"He just said, 'Have you got the TV on?' '' Brown said. "I said, 'No. Have they landed? When did they land?' He said, 'Well, they haven't. There's a problem.'
"At that point, without asking him, I pretty much knew."
His daughter, Laurel Clark, was an astronaut aboard the space shuttle Columbia. It was her first mission, and her daddy had just heard on CNN that people in New Mexico should be able to see the shuttle's trail as it flew over the state en route to its landing in Florida.
"I saw one long contrail in the sky going from west to east," Salton said. "I'm pretty sure that was it. That was her."
Less than 20 minutes later Salton and his wife, Harriet, heard the news on television: NASA had lost contact with the shuttle.
"Then that TV reporter in Dallas had the footage that showed the breakup," Salton said. "And we knew what had happened."
The oldest of Salton's four children the daughter who had made A's in school, gone to medical school on a full Navy scholarship and made the space program while she was five months pregnant was dead.
"She was just a fine lady," Salton said. "I was proud of her accomplishments, of course, but she was a good person, too."
Behind him, on a table in his home in a middle-class neighborhood near University Boulevard and Indian School Road, were photos reminding the retired 69-year-old carpenter of the accomplishments of his golden child.
There was Clark and her brother, Jon Salton, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, grinning together in a training plane that produces weightlessness. Clark is floating upside down, wearing her blue astronaut jumpsuit; her eyes sparkle like someone who knows her dream is in reach.
There was Salton's grandson Laurel's 8-year-old son, Iain Clark holding a feather and a bone in some Southwestern canyon.
There was a color 8-by-10 of Laurel's official NASA photo, the one where her smile shows her dimples, the one Americans have seen dozens of times since news broke that the space shuttle Columbia blew up 207,000 feet in the air over Texas.
On the photo, Laurel had written: "To a wonderful father I wouldn't be where I am without your guidance, support and love."
The word love was underlined.
By 1 p.m. Saturday, the Saltons had turned off their TV. They couldn't watch any more news reports about debris raining from the Texas sky.
Their phone rang nonstop. Family called. Friends called. Reporters called. Powerful people called.
"The governor called and left a message," Harriet Salton said. "We heard from that congressman from the southern part of the state, too."
The phone rang again. "It's Heather," Harriet called to her husband. Robert took the call, but was off the phone in about two minutes.
"Wrong Heather," he said. "I thought it was Heather Salton (his niece) but it was Heather Wilson. I wouldn't have picked up the phone for a congressman."
The phone rang a few minutes later; Harriet looked at the Caller ID. "It's Dan Rather again," she said.
They let the answering machine take it.
'Very tough lady'
Clark, 41, was born in Iowa. The Saltons moved a lot, and Clark lived here in Albuquerque two years in 1970s.
She went to the fifth grade at Hodgin Elementary around 1971 while Robert Salton worked on a doctorate in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Clark's mother, Margory, was an RN.
The Saltons moved to New York but returned to Albuquerque a year or so later, where Clark attended Monroe Middle School for a year.
Her parents divorced, and Clark moved to Wisconsin with her mother. Clark went to high school in Racine, Wis., a city of 84,000 that, according to her official NASA biography, she considers to be her hometown.
She was an A-student at Horlick High. "The only B she ever made was in typing," Robert Salton said.
She got a Navy scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she got a bachelor's degree in zoology in 1983 and a doctorate in medicine in 1987.
Clark joined the Navy and was working as a flight surgeon, based in Pensacola, Fla., when she decided to try out for the space program. Clark didn't make the program the first tryout.
"Then she got pregnant, and I figured that was it for her being an astronaut," Robert Salton said.
But Clark tried out again in 1996 when she was five months pregnant with her son Iain. She got in.
"She is she was a very tough lady," Robert Salton said.
Clark lived in Houston with her husband, Jonathan Clark, and son, Iain. Her husband is also in the space program.
Clark's husband and son had gone to Florida to see the shuttle landing, as had Clark's sister, Lynne Salton of Kansas City, Mo. The rest of the family was watching on television, Salton said.
During the Columbia's 16-day mission, Clark had been in contact with some of her siblings via e-mail.
"The kids have been forwarding me her e-mails this morning. She was real excited, talking about watching lightning storms over the Pacific."
Salton said he saw his daughter for the last time in December, when she came to Albuquerque for Christmas.
"She was pumped about the (shuttle) trip," Salton said. "She was so excited. It was something she had worked for for six or seven years."
The Saltons said Laurel was aware of the risks involved in space travel, but not worried about them. At least not enough to miss a chance to fly in the stars.
"She was doing what she loved to do," Harriet Salton said. "She fulfilled her dream. Not many of us get to do that."