April 14, 2003 12:00 PM

Jonathan Clark is slowly growing accustomed to the daily tasks of running a household—grocery shopping, scavenging the freezer for the evening’s dinner, remembering to clip his 8-year-old son’s fingernails. Tougher for Clark, though, is handling the questions young Iain routinely throws his way. “If Mommy’s an angel and can get anything she wants,” went one, “why can’t she wish to be back alive?” Another was more straightforward: “Why did she have to go into space?”

Space was where Iain’s mother, Laurel, 41, lost her life as one of the seven astronauts returning to Earth in the space shuttle Columbia when it disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1. While NASA investigators continue to seek clues to explain how fiery gasses penetrated the craft’s heat-absorbing panels, Clark, 49, has faced an even deeper mystery: how to emerge from his grief and help his son cope. A NASA flight surgeon, Clark, who served with the Marines as a physician in the first Gulf War, is no stranger to mortality. “I’ve seen a lot of death,” he says. “But I never knew so much pain could be involved.”

As they try to deal with their loss, Clark and Iain lean on each other and the tight NASA community. Many evenings the phone rings off the hook with other NASA spouses calling to make plans to get together for mutual support. Father and son flip through photo albums and trade stories about Laurel—”Remember when Mommy gave you that frog figurine? Remember when you’d sit with her in the rocking chair?”—and, for now, Clark lets Iain sleep in his bed. “Iain was very much a mama’s boy, and I was on the sideline,” says Clark. “Now we’ve both lost our love, so we have a bond. I’m grateful that I have found something so precious in something so tragic.”

On the day tragedy struck, Clark and Iain had traveled from their home in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake to watch the shuttle landing at Cape Canaveral. Having observed many touchdowns, Clark was concerned when technicians noted a sudden drop in tire pressure on the craft. Minutes later the head of flight operations broke the news that they had lost contact, provoking pained screams from assembled family members. “There was this emptiness,” says Clark, “as though my heart had been ripped out.”

Emptiness gave way to anger. Flying back to Houston that afternoon, “I thought, I’ll load up the dog and some camping gear, and I’ll burn down the house,” Clark recalls. “We’ll just go and hide.” Instead he dove into a whirl of memorial services and funerals and stepped up to care for Iain. Clark found himself missing small things—his wife’s caresses and the teasing relationship they shared. “I was never into the past,” he says. “But now I find so many precious things to remember.”

He and Laurel met in 1989 at a Navy undersea medical-training course in Florida. “She beat me at swimming—that got my attention,” says Clark. They soon began dating and married in 1991. “They were a matched set,” says Clark’s colleague Jim Logan. In 1996 NASA admitted Laurel to its astronaut corps, and the family moved to Clear Lake. Though preparing for space flight kept her busy, she found time to maintain a lush garden, cook the family’s meals and dote on her son, a second grader who likes to create art and swim. Clark, meanwhile, frequently worked 80-hour weeks, assessing and planning in-flight medical care. “If Laurel was out of town or had a meeting, I could get Iain up and get him to school,” says Clark. “But he was just like glue with her.”

When Clark’s shuttle mission launched, father and son cheered her together. He tucked notes and her favorite quotations into her flight diary and teased her by e-mail when she was in orbit: “I told her Iain and I were drinking beer and eating pizza, staying up late and not doing any homework.”

In truth they were—and are—doing much better than that. Though reviews for Clark’s food aren’t stellar—”My mom used to cook better,” says Iain—Dad has scaled back his work schedule to drive to and from school, read bedtime stories and, when Iain needs to talk, listen. Iain once told his father he just wanted to die—so he could see his mommy. “Me too,” says his father. “But we have things to do first.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Gabrielle Cosgriff in Clear Lake

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