Millie Hughes-Fulford: Scientist in Space
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As NASA’s space shuttle program comes to an end, we profile Marin County former astronaut Millie Hughes-Fulford. In 1991, the molecular biologist was the first woman to travel into space as a working scientist. Since then, she has sent a string of experiments into space that could one day help space travelers on long voyages, and aging people here on Earth.
Hughes Fulford's career opens up a fascinating window onto the history of the shuttle program and of space science, which we were able to bring to life through a treasure trove of NASA footage. Associate producer Michael Goode and I sifted through dozens of hours of video of happy times and tragic moments. Hughes-Fulford clearly relishes her firefighting training before the flight, and is seen busy at work in the Spacelab on board the shuttle Columbia. But she also had the misfortune of sitting at Kennedy Space Center and watching in horror as the shuttle Challenger exploded soon after launching in January of 1986.
Hughes-Fulford made history in 1991, on board the shuttle Columbia, as the first woman “payload specialist.” Payload specialists are scientists who are experts on a particular mission’s experiments or “payload.” Although they undergo rigorous training, payload specialists aren’t career astronauts who expect to make space travel their life’s work. Instead, their goal is to carry out a group of experiments for other scientists who remain on Earth.
“You have the shuttle pilots, who are the commanders, and they get you there and they get you home,”
Hughes-Fulford said, explaining the different types of astronauts involved in space shuttle flights. “Then you have mission specialists, who are career astronauts, and they train for a specific mission. And then you have payload specialists who know the topic.”
Sally Ride, the Stanford-educated physicist who was the first American woman to fly into space, in 1983, was a career astronaut. The very first woman to travel into space was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963.
One of the experiments that Hughes-Fulford carried out during her nine days on board shuttle Columbia had been designed by Switzerland-based researcher Augusto Cogoli to examine how the immune system fares in space. Cogoli’s experiment showed that the lack of gravity in space affected the immune system. Up until then, scientists had believed that perhaps hormones were to blame for space travelers’ weakened immune system. Cogoli’s experiment showed that zero gravity, not hormones, was to blame.
Hughes-Fulford has since sent up her own experiments to space —some in collaboration with Cogoli— to further investigate the mechanisms by which a lack of gravity weakens the immune system. Her findings could one day translate into treatments for diseases brought on by the immuno-suppression associated with aging, as well as HIV infection, which hurts the immune system, and rheumatoid arthritis, in which the immune system is too active. And if we’re ever going to send astronauts to Mars —a trip that could take six months with today’s technology— we’ll need to figure out how to keep them healthy.
She and her lab members at the San Francisco VA Medical Center just sent up a group of research mice (known as “astromice”) on the shuttle Atlantis, the very last shuttle flight. Hughes-Fulford and colleagues Esmeralda Aguayo and Joe Meissler were in Florida to watch the Atlantis take off and land. Hughes-Fulford wrote the following for QUEST as she flew back to the Bay Area from Florida three days after the July 21 landing:
“As I fly back from Kennedy Space Center to the Bay Area, I reflect back on the last fantastic and final launch and landing of the space shuttle Atlantis. Upon return to Earth, most astronauts and cosmonauts remark about seeing no borders when they looked at our planet. While in orbit, we see one world. The shuttle program speaks to the one-world concept. This era of spaceflight saw a time where international scientific cooperation from Europe, Japan, Canada and many other countries was at its best and most rewarding in scientific discovery.”
The invitation for Hughes-Fulford to send her latest experiment up on the Atlantis came at the very last moment, she told QUEST. In fact, she received a phone call at the end of June, just weeks before the July launch.
In our TV story, which we finished back in May, we reported that Hughes-Fulford had sent eight experiments into space and was preparing to send her ninth one up in 2012. That was before she was invited to send her research up on the Atlantis. With the successful completion of the Atlantis flight, she’s now preparing her tenth experiment.
Since the shuttle is no longer available, Hughes-Fulford plans to send her next experiment up with a private company, Los Angeles-based SpaceX. If all goes well, her tenth experiment will travel into space in April 2012 and might actually be the very first experiment to go up to the International Space Station on a SpaceX vehicle.
CORRECTION: In the TV story, we say that 40 women have flown into space. The correct number, according to NASA, is 54. We regret the error.
Millie Hughes-Fulford: Scientist in Space
NASA / Ames Research Center
NASA / Johnson Space Center
Medical Animation Copyright © 2011 Nucleus Medical Media, All rights reserved
TV Series Producer
Sue Ellen McCann
A KQED PRODUCTION, © 2011 KQED, San Francisco