Strawberry's Millie Elizabeth Hughes-Fulford was pioneering astronaut, scientist
Former NASA astronaut Dr. Millie Elizabeth Hughes-Fulford, a longtime Strawberry resident and molecular biologist who in 1991 became the first woman to serve as a payload specialist on a shuttle mission, died Feb. 2 after a seven-year battle with lymphoma. She was 75.
In 1993, in recognition of her historic role, Dr. Hughes-Fulford was named to the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame.
NASA selected Dr. Hughes-Fulford for its astronaut program in 1983, following a highly competitive process. She moved that year to Strawberry from Greenbrae; she had lived in Marin since 1973.
On June 5, 1991, she got to take her first flight into space aboard Columbia on the space shuttle’s 11th mission and NASA’s 41st shuttle mission overall, the first to carry three female crewmembers. Launching out of Cape Canaveral in Florida, the flight — STS-40, for Space Transportation System flight 40 — marked the fifth dedicated Spacelab mission, carrying the module for Spacelab Life Sciences-1. She and her six fellow crewmembers spent nine days in orbit and circled the Earth 146 times, traveling some 3.2 million miles. It was the space agency’s first mission dedicated to biomedical studies, and with 18 experiments it brought back more medical data than any previous mission. Dr. Hughes-Fulford’s experiments were on the effect of space travel on humans.
In addition to being the first payload specialist, she was also the first representative of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in space.
Dr. Hughes-Fulford was born Dec. 21, 1945, in Mineral Wells, a small town about an hour outside Forth Worth, Texas, to Charlie and Lanore Hughes. Her father owned a country feed and grocery store. She was 5 years old when the television show “Buck Rogers” first aired. She loved the show, which was about a space adventurer, and she idolized Rogers’ sidekick, Wilma Deering, who became an inspiration to her.
An outstanding student, Dr. Hughes-Fulford graduated from Mineral Wells High School at 16 and enrolled at Tarleton State University, which later became part of the Texas A&M University system. She majored in chemistry and often found herself the only woman in a class full of men who did not appreciate it when she outscored them on exams, said her granddaughter Kira Herzog, who had been interviewing Dr. Hughes-Fulford for several years with the intent of writing her biography.
“There was even hostility from some of the professors and the dean,” Herzog has said for profiles. “They definitely did not want her in that program.”
After graduating among the top of her class in 1968, Dr. Hughes-Fulford enrolled at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, where she earned her doctorate in biochemistry in 1972. She received fellowships and merit scholarships throughout her education.
She applied for 100 academic posts around the country but got only four responses. She accepted a lab position as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Her research focused on the regulation of cholesterol metabolism. Within a couple of years, she relocated with her laboratory to San Francisco and settled in Marin.
In 1978, she noticed a print ad in Family Circle magazine inviting women to apply for the space program and become astronauts. Dr. Hughes-Fulford was one of 20 finalists out of some 8,000 applicants, but the first seat went to Sally Ride, a physicist who in 1983 became the first American woman in space.
Dr. Hughes-Fulford continued pursuing a career in space, becoming a member of the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Corps and serving from 1981 until 1995 and attaining the rank of major.
“She was always smiling and enjoyed every second of her training,” Dr. Michael Barratt, a colleague, said in an interview that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. “She just seemed happy to be there. But along with that she had the focus of a scientist.”
The mid-air explosion of the Challenger in 1986, killing all seven crew, put the space-shuttle program on hold for two years before returning in 1988, adding 15 more missions before Dr. Hughes-Fulford’s Columbia flight. Her launch had originally been scheduled for May 22, 1991, but it was postponed within 48 hours when a leaking part in the propulsion system that had already been replaced the year prior failed an analysis. A June 1 launch was postponed again when several attempts to calibrate an inertial measurement unit failed. The mission got the green light to launch June 5.
“She was one of the bravest people I’ve ever met,” Herzog told the Associated Press. “She told me that when she was taking off in the shuttle she had absolutely no fear.” She said Dr. Hughes-Fulford was “logically thinking of what her next task was — and that is how she faced everything, including her cancer.”
On her return from the space-shuttle mission, Dr. Hughes-Fulford established the Hughes-Fulford Laboratory at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco, where her research was in the arenas of immunology, bioastronautics and oncology. Her lab worked to understand the mechanisms that regulate cell growth in mammals, and she continued to lead as principal investigator on other experiments carried out in space.
In 2018, Dr. Hughes-Fulford partnered with Dr. Aenor Sawyer to start the University of California Space Health Program, which draws researchers from the university system’s 10 campuses and three national laboratories and added the title of professor at the University of California at San Francisco to her credits.
“Millie was an inspiration on so many levels, from the surface of the earth to the low-earth orbit,” Sawyer said in an interview Phys.org, a science news website. “She infused every conversation with compassion, optimism, energy, humor and an unshakable confidence that a solution could be found.”
Over the years, Dr. Hughes-Fulford was the principal investigator and collaborator on numerous experiments that flew on shuttle flights without her, including one that examined bone-cell growth. Another, in 1997, studied the root causes of osteoporosis that occurs in astronauts during spaceflight. A 2006 International Space Station mission carried her experiment on changes in T-cell gene induction during space flight. She also has had one of her experiments carried into space on the SpaceX Dragon.
Her most recent experiments on the International Space Station were carried out in collaboration with the ISS International Laboratory, the European Space Agency and the National Institutes of Health. In those studies, she found one basis for changes in the immune system in spaceflight. Many of her publications are available at her laboratory website, hughesfulfordlab.com.
Dr. Hughes-Fulford contributed more than 120 papers and abstracts, including on bone and cancer growth regulation, and on the effect of spaceflight on the immune system at the cell molecular and systems biology level. Her last paper was on lymphoma, the disease that eventually caused her death.
She was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society for Gravitational Science and Biology, American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, American Society for Cell Biology, American Society of Hematology and the Association of Space Explorers, among other professional organizations.
Dr. Hughes-Fulford received numerous awards and honors during her life. Among the most prestigious were being named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow for 1971-1972 and a National Science Foundation Fellow for 1968-1971.
She served on the board of regents of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University from 1986 to 1989, and she served on the National Research Council’s Committee on Space Biology and Space Medicine from 1987 to 1990. She had served on an advisory board of the Estuary & Ocean Science Center at the Romberg Tiburon Campus from 1995 to about 2017.
Dr. Hughes-Fulford was married twice. Her first marriage to police officer Rick Wiley ended in divorce in the late 1970s. Her second marriage was in 1983 to George Fulford, a United Airlines pilot who predeceased her.
In her free time, she enjoyed scuba diving, swimming, photography, computer graphics and boating.
In addition to Kira Herzog, Dr. Hughes-Fulford is survived by her sister, Gail Shewmake of McAllen, Texas; her daughter, Tori Herzog of Mill Valley; and granddaughter Shoshana Herzog.
No service is planned due to the pandemic. Donations in her name may be made to Stand Up to Cancer, P.O. Box 843721, Los Angeles, CA 90084-3721.
Reach Tiburon reporter Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.