Local teacher recalls cousin’s stellar career
Gazing up at the stars while sitting around a campfire last summer, it was clear that astronaut Laurel Clark was in awe of the sky.
That made her an astronaut for all the right reasons, said Kristin Liljequist, Clark’s first cousin and a long-term substitute teacher at Hennessy School.
“She was in awe of the stars, the skies,” said Liljequist.
Clark, of Racine, Wis., was one of the astronauts who died Saturday aboard space shuttle Columbia.
Liljequist said her brother was sitting around a campfire with Clark in July 2002, on the family’s annual canoe trip down the Wisconsin River.
He came back and told Liljequist that it was apparent that Clark loved the stars.
“It was clear how in awe she was of the sky, and the stars, and how incredibly excited she was about the fact that she was going to be up there,” Liljequist said.
Liljequist and Clark’s families were close when they were kids, though Liljequist was 11 years older.
“She was really a wonderful, wonderful girl – always brilliant,” recalls Liljequist.
Liljequist said Clark was a very hard working student, always studying, balancing straight-A grades with a high school job at a McDonald’s restaurant. She was one of nine kids in her family.
She went on to get a medical degree, and was passionate about science. Yet she still made it to family dinners and canoe trips. Clark was also an adventurous person, interested in cycling, hiking and rock climbing.
The news Saturday that Clark had perished was a terrible event for family members, some of whom had gathered to watch the launch in Florida. Clark’s eight-year-old son and husband were waiting at the landing point in Florida.
“She really was her mother’s shining star,” said Liljequist. “I don’t know how her mother is going to cope with this.”
But that death is tempered by Clark’s high-flying achievement, one she had dreamed about since she was in high school.
While in space, Clark wrote e-mails to her mother saying she was exhilarated at what she was doing, what she was seeing, said Liljequist.
“She was just overwhelmed with how beautiful everything was,” Liljequist said.
And she was just 15 minutes from completing the mission when the accident occurred.
“I don’t think she felt any fear,” said Liljequist. “I think she died feeling a tremendous sense of accomplishment, of jubilation. We should all die such a good death.”
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