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Consumer Reports

Shuttle tragedy turns dad into father | (KRT) HOUSTON - On a sweltering afternoon, a wilted Jonathan Clark flops onto the couch, having lost a battle over whether his 8-year-old son Iain would wear shoes outside.

The place has the slightly rumpled look of an all-male household, but a mother's hand is still evident in the family photographs on the wall, in the pressed flowers on the shelves.

The triangularly folded American flags suggest that the woman who once lived here was a hero.

Not long ago, Jonathan Clark wouldn't have been home on a weekday afternoon, engaged in the mundane, yet all-important challenges of parenthood - such as trying to get shoes on an 8-year-old.

But then everything about Dr. Jonathan Clark's life is different now, especially fatherhood.

In the four months since his wife, astronaut Laurel Clark, died along with six other crew members aboard the space shuttle Columbia, the one-time workaholic - and only single dad among the crew's survivors - struggles mightily with his new role. Remarkably, though, he also sees the positive side.

"She forced me to do something I refused to do," said Clark, a neurologist and NASA flight surgeon. "And in the midst of all this tragedy, that is an incredible gift."

When astronauts die, the public witnesses flag-draped caskets, stoic survivors and stirring eulogies. But the private journey of healing is taken here, behind the stately front door of a brick home, with an 8-year-old boy and a 50-year-old man who is learning what it means to be a father - and not just on the third Sunday in June.

An overachiever with an eight-page resume, Clark is disarmingly candid about his former lack of interest in all things paternal. He routinely worked 60-hour weeks evaluating in-flight medical care.

"I used to dump everything on my wife, so I guess this is payback," Clark said. "It's just the macho NASA culture."

But that changed instantly when the shuttle broke apart against a sapphire-blue Texas sky. Now, Clark is confronting the enigma of unmatched socks, doctors' appointments, child care and a little boy's haircuts.

"Iain and I have a bond," he said. "We both lost the love of our lives."

On the day of the tragedy, father and son were at Cape Canaveral, awaiting the glorious arrival of the shuttle. No stranger to space operations, Clark sensed trouble when he heard an exchange about tire pressure - followed by a command for flight controllers to "preserve your data." He had heard it once before: On Jan. 28, 1986, when the Challenger blew apart.

"That's when I knew," he said quietly.

Family members were ushered into private quarters, where the grim news was delivered, amid anguished cries. "The pain was just everywhere."

Stunned, father and son flew back to Houston, where Clark's first reaction was to scoop up Iain, load up the car and escape. He didn't.

But with Iain in mind, Clark continues to weigh the security of the tightly knit NASA community against the lure of a fresh start - possibly Arizona or Colorado.

"I still might do it," said Clark, an Army brat who moved frequently during childhood. "But when I do, I'll be going toward something rather than running away."

With the other Columbia spouses, Clark has formed an informal support group that meets regularly.

"We have our days, but luckily, we've never all been down at the same time. I look at Rona (Ramon, widow of Israeli astronaut Ilan) with four kids and I think, `What are you bitching about?' Look around and someone always has it worse."

Typically, Iain deflects questions about his mother, but every so often, a snippet of memory floats to the surface unannounced.

"Remember when I bought Mom that crystal egg at the Dollar Store?" he asked while mixing a secret potion (hot sauce, yogurt and peanut butter) with Nikki Lloyd, a close friend and daughter of a NASA employee.

Or "Didn't Mom make good soup and bread?"

Iain is seeing a child psychologist to help him process the loss. He sleeps in dad's bedroom, where copies of both Flying and Parents magazines are strewn on the floor.

"Sometimes," the boy said, "I think I'm going to wake up and my mom will be downstairs in the kitchen. She'll have messed-up hair and dirty clothes because - you know - she's really been on some island."

The widower solicited advice from children of the Challenger crew, some of whom were the same age as Iain when they lost their parents in an eerily similar disaster some 17 years earlier.

Richard Scobee - now in his mid-20s - told the elder Clark that for years he, too, believed his father, Francis "Dick" Scobee, had bailed out and was marooned on a remote desert island.

Steven McAuliffe - a U.S. District Court judge and husband of Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher and the first private citizen to venture into space - also has offered his insight.

It's a connection that Clark hopes to make because it is the domestic situation that most mirrors his own.

In addition, condolences poured in from thousands of Americans, including those who have waged their own daily battles with grief following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"In the aftermath of tragedy, these gestures are what defines our humanity. You have to find the inspiration - the goodness - and revel in it ... or else you will get sucked into a morass of despair."

He quotes Helen Keller - one of the myriad quotes that he wrote on 3 x 5 cards and secretly tucked in his wife's flight diary: "You have to experience the valleys to appreciate the mountains."

So, he feels gratitude for small things, such as the return of some of his wife's personal effects from the 83,000 pieces of shuttle debris scattered over 2,400 square miles of East Texas.

The chunks of her CDs, a fragment of a patch from her alma mater, Horlick High School in Racine, Wis., provide a tangible link to those last harrowing moments.

Even though the search has been concluded, he still hopes her engagement ring will turn up.

Somehow, Laurel Clark managed to juggle numerous responsibilities and still maintain friendships that stretched back decades.

"I don't think she would have worked if she had just been an MD," said Hyang Lloyd, a close family friend. "But when you're an astronaut, you are chosen."

She came to it by accident, literally. In 1991, not long after they married, she accompanied her husband, then a Department of Defense flight surgeon, to a disaster drill at Kennedy Space Center. When the exercise was short by one casualty, Laurel volunteered and the experience piqued her curiosity. In 1994, when she was eight months' pregnant, she applied to the astronaut corps and was rejected. Two years later, she interviewed again - and this time got the nod.

Lloyd said if the astronaut is watching from heaven, she'd never recognize her husband.

"Before, he just pushed fatherhood away," Lloyd said. "The fact that he was never around would frustrate Laurel to no end. He was always at the office or working on his plane."

Now, she said, he has the fervor of a convert.

"It's like two different people," she said.

Since school adjourned for the summer, Clark has cobbled together a child-care network using friends and neighbors, along with father-son outings on days when he's exhausted all favors.

"I'm totally winging it," he said. When colleagues schedule a meeting he flatly tells them: "I can't guarantee anything."

He has sworn off all business travel and weekend shifts. In fact, he plans to quit NASA altogether in the next year, a decision made during a recent trip to a water park, when Iain just spontaneously hugged him.

"It was just so unexpected and so precious," he said, with a trace of wonder.

Such discoveries make him want to hit other dads "upside the head," he said.

"I just want to shake them and say, `Go look at what's important in your life.' I wish I learned it earlier. But I have to say `Thanks, Laurel, for teaching it to me now.' "

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services