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‘She lifted people up.’ Barrier-breaking female astronaut dies at 75, daughter says

Millie Hughes-Fulford (NASA/Released)

Millie Hughes-Fulford, a barrier-breaking astronaut and scientific researcher whose passion for space was formed as a child in Mineral Wells looking up at the stars, died Thursday following a seven-year battle with cancer, her daughter told the Star-Telegram. She was 75.

Hughes-Fulford shattered a glass ceiling in 1991 when she became the first female payload specialist to fly in space for NASA, launching into orbit on the shuttle Columbia as part of the first-ever mission dedicated to biomedical studies, STS-40. In the specialized role, dedicated to conducting on-board research, the trained chemist helped complete more than 18 experiments over a nine-day period, gathering more medical data than any mission up to that point. She circled the earth 146 times.

Her daughter and only child, Tori Herzog, 53, was fresh out of college, and said she remembers having to go to her friend’s house in order to view NASA’s feed of video clips from inside the shuttle. She was there for the landing in Edwards, California, when she helped her mother walk because her wobbly legs weren’t accustomed to the gravity.

In the years following the landmark achievement, Hughes-Fulford would tell her daughter all about what was like to look down at the earth from miles above, to float weightlessly from one end of the shuttle to the other. It was awkward at first, she told her, but she got faster and it became easier to glide through the tight corridors. She was caught once by NASA cameras flipping in the research lab, carefree, as she listened to music.

Hughes-Fulford would describe the take-off, on the other hand, like sitting still as a bomb went off underneath you.

“She says her heart rate never went up,” Herzog said over the phone on Saturday from San Francisco, where she lives. “It was something that she was just so ready for.”

The dream of becoming an astronaut struck Hughes-Fulford as a kid transfixed by the space adventures of “Buck Rogers” on her family’s small black-and-white TV. But she also grew up with a love of learning that pushed her to become a researcher in fields like medicine and biology, publishing works that probed why the human body behaves the way it does under certain conditions.

Seven years ago, Hughes-Fulford, who had settled down in San Francisco, was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma and told she might live another two years. She defied the odds to “steal an extra five years,” Herzog said, a time when she traveled the world with her daughter and continued her research at the University of California San Francisco until her death. Her final published paper was on non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

She leaves behind Herzog; her first husband, Rick Wiley; her sister, Gail Shewmake; and two granddaughters.

Her family this week is mourning a role model who inspired them not only by what she did but how she did it, with a lack of ego and a love of education.

“She’s always lifted people up on her shoulder,” Herzog said of her mother. “A lot of people are coming to me and telling me that because of her they are where they are, because they didn’t think they could do it, because they were a girl, or because they just weren’t good enough. She was always the one that said, ‘You are good enough.'”

Her death, announced on Thursday, has been met with an outpouring of tributes on social media from those in the scientific community who knew the impact of her thought-provoking work and how her role with NASA inspired a generation of young girls and boys.

The death was also felt in Mineral Wells, where friends recalled her wit and penchant for spontaneous adventure, and the drive she possessed at a young age that foreshadowed her illustrious career.

Frances Cleveland, a 75-year-old former classmate who still lives in the small town about an hour outside of Fort Worth, was close friends with Hughes-Fulford and five other girls at Mineral Wells High School. The “big six,” as they called themselves, enjoyed passing the time by hiking in the winding hills of Palo Pinto County or driving Hughes-Fulford’s car over the spillway at Lake Mineral Wells.

Of the close-knit group, the future astronaut was perhaps the most driven, but Cleveland said it was a “gracious driven.” She was the friend who was quietly excelling in every class, especially math and science, and seemed to conquer anything she put her mind to. She managed to get all of her high school credits by the time she was 16.

She went on to college at Tarleton State University, graduate school at Texas Women’s University and in 1972 became a postdoctoral fellow at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, where she started her career of medical research. She also spent about 14 years as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Corps.

Cleveland remembers in the early 1980s when she was picked to be in the NASA space program.

Hughes-Fulford couldn’t contain her excitement about the daunting challenge ahead of her.

“Back then, girls didn’t have an opportunity to do those things,” Cleveland said. “But she dreamed about it, and then her dream became a reality.”

A dream realized

Hughes-Fulford moved her family to Houston in the August of 1984 so she could begin her training, getting her body ready for the intense g-force of the launch and the lack of gravity in space. It was a big time commitment.

Herzog remembers Hughes-Fulford became so busy she hardly had time for anything but training, though she checked in every day over the phone. She taught her daughter, then 16, to copy her signature perfectly so she could sign forms for school herself, Herzog said with a laugh. Herzog understood why she had to work, and felt her mother had raised her to be an independent person.

It wasn’t always easy to have a mother as an astronaut, like when she watched the Challenger shuttle explode into streaks of smoke and debris on TV on Jan. 28, 1986. She later learned the ill-fated rocket booster on the Challenger, which had crucial flaws in its O-ring seals, would have been used on Hughes-Fulford’s mission had it not been delayed from its original launch date.

Her mother was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida watching the sudden and unexpected tragedy in person.

“I hyperventilate every time I see a space launch,” Hurzog said. “I can’t watch those anymore because of Challenger.”

Hughes-Fulford’s launch slated for May 1991 was delayed one last time due to concerns over equipment, and Herzog was unable to get the time off of work to see it in person. But she witnessed her safe return to Earth, as well as the warm reception she received in the coming days and weeks.

Mineral Wells hosted a Millie Hughes-Fulford Day that year that featured a couple of crowded galas where she was honored and presented with a key to the city.

She hung out with Cleveland, her childhood friend, and requested they do something they hadn’t done since they were kids — have a slumber party and talk all night.

“I got to visit with her for a long time,” Cleveland said. “I asked her if she was ever afraid. She said no.”

The nine-day flight, which brought Hughes-Fulford attention and praise, was far from the end of her time with NASA. She oversaw several experiments that went to the International Space Station, focused on medical topics like the impact of space on bone cell growth, according to NASA. She and colleagues in 2013 demonstrated for the first time that microgravity was the root cause of failing T-cells, the white blood cells that offer immune defense.

Friends of hers from North Texas said her career based in California didn’t cause her to lose ties to her hometown, where her parents owned a grocery store and later her mother was a school teacher.

Lela J. Abernathy, a longtime friend from Palo Pinto, said in a Facebook message she kept up with Hughes-Fulford despite the distance. Hughes-Fulford would always bring something special to their phone conversations — whether it was telling her the right way to harvest an apricot, or how cellular biology relates to the COVID pandemic. She spoke lovingly of her hometown, the way the picturesque hills and streams lined the Brazos River.

She told her what it was like to see lightning storms from space, how it looked like cobwebs “stretching across entire continents,” Abernathy said.

During one phone conversation last fall, she remembers they talked about how the only geo-political border visible from space that’s not water is the Great Wall of China.

“Visiting with Millie was like that,” Abernathy said. “She always enhanced your point of view.”

‘She finally retired’

Herzog was with her mother for the past 11 months as they avoided COVID, stuck together “in a bubble,” she said.

The mother and daughter would fill their days by going on long car rides or taking up tasks like cleaning out Hughes-Fulford’s cluttered garage. They went on a trip to the zoo once when it opened back up. Hughes-Fulford liked to keep her mind active all the time.

This week they were together, every day, until Hughes-Fulford died on Thursday.

The loss has been hard on her family, who knew this would be coming someday due to her diagnosis but are still having trouble coming to terms with her absence. Herzog was able to note on Saturday that her mother has finally stopped working for a second.

“She always said, ‘I’m going to retire,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it,'” Herzog said, laughing. “She finally retired.”

Herzog said the family has yet to make plans for a funeral service due to the difficulties with COVID and with all the interest from the public. They intend to put a headstone in Woodland Park Cemetery in Mineral Wells, where her parents are buried. They will spread her ashes on the ground, as she wanted.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to Stand Up To Cancer.

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