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Millie Hughes-Fulford Circled the Earth 146 Times

Researcher spent 9 days in orbit on the Columbia
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 8, 2021 6:50 PM CST

(Newser) – Millie Hughes-Fulford, a trailblazing astronaut and scientist who became the first female payload specialist to fly in space for NASA, died last week after a yearslong battle with cancer, her family said. She was 75. Hughes-Fulford was selected by NASA for its astronaut program in 1983 and in June 1991 spent nine days in orbit on the shuttle Columbia, conducting experiments on the effect of space travel on humans as part of the agency's first mission dedicated to biomedical studies, STS-40. She and her crewmates circled the Earth 146 times, the AP reports. The research shaped the rest of her career, and upon her return, she established the Hughes-Fulford Laboratory at the San Francisco VA Healthcare System, which worked to understand the mechanisms that regulate cell growth in mammals. "She came back to her world as a scientist and carried this experience of having flown in space and that became a unique filter through which she passed all of her scientific work," said Dr. Mike Barratt, a NASA flight surgeon assigned to the Columbia.

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"She told me that when she was taking off in the shuttle she had absolutely no fear," her granddaughter said. "She was logically thinking of what her next task was, and that is how she faced everything, including her cancer." Millie Elizabeth Hughes was born in 1945 in Mineral Wells, Texas. At 16, she entered Tarleton State University, where she majored in chemistry and biology and was often the only woman in class. The men didn't appreciate it when she outscored them on exams, her granddaughter said. After earning a doctorate in biochemistry, she applied to 100 academic jobs around the country and got four responses. She accepted a lab position. In 1978, Hughes-Fulford answered a magazine ad looking for applicants to be the first woman in space. She made it to the final 20, of 8,000 applicants, before Sally Ride was picked, then went into space on the Columbia as a researcher. "Millie was an inspiration on so many levels, from the surface of the earth to the low-earth orbit,'" a colleague said. "She infused every conversation with compassion, optimism, energy, humor, and an unshakable confidence that a solution could be found."

(Read more obituary stories.)

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