Ahead of her time

KAPAA — One thing that stands out is the blanket of dust rising, then floating, in the air like it was strung from a puppeteer.

It stands out, in part, because the shuttle should have been scrubbed cleaner than a hospital room.

But there the wispy wall of the missed particles was, hovering three inches above the aircraft’s floor, just like everything else inside, just like Millie Hughes-Fulford.

“It should have been spic-and-span clean,” Hughes-Fulford said remembering the detail, the split second when she realized that her lifelong goal came to fruition and she was in orbit.

She’d trained nine years before the launch, putting family life on hold. Before that, she’d gone to college to learn how to fly, but only men were training to be astronauts, so she studied science, instead. Later, she bought a plane and learned how to fly recreationally. When she was 5 years old, in 1950, she told people she wanted to become an astronaut before people knew of astronauts and the adults patted her head and told her she had a terrific imagination.

Then, in 1991, aboard SLS 1, she launched into the sky at 18,500 mph.

And just as the dust rose, everything went silent and the next thing Hughes-Fulford noticed was the Earth.

“It looked alive to me,” she said. “Imagine, looking at a living cell that has a glow to it. The entire Earth has a glow.”

The Kapaa resident and molecular biologist was the first woman to travel into space as a working scientist during the nine-day mission, and 12th woman to reach orbit overall. The seven-member crew studied the effect zero gravity has on the human body, specifically the immune system.

Today, she directs the Hughes-Fulford Laboratory in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco, and is still working closely in space exploration, though she calls Kauai her full-time home. The lab’s goal is to understand the mechanisms that regulate cell growth in mammals, and Hughes-Fulford will be in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for a Dec. 9 launch.

“We have a 36-hour day coming up,” she said of the long hours leading up to launch. “As long as it keeps me happy, I’ll keep doing it.”

Looking back, Hughes-Fulford said she didn’t think her desire to be an astronaut was crazy — though plenty of other people did. Even after she achieved it, she said, the idea of a female astronaut raised an eyebrow or two.

“Boy, a woman astronaut,’” Hughes-Fulford said, recounting the reaction she’s heard so many times. “Especially in the beginning, when there weren’t that many of us, you’d hear that a lot.”

A science fiction junkie from the start — Buck Rogers was an early favorite followed by Star Trek — the Texas native told her parents she wanted fly into space two decades before Neil Armstrong shot space travel into the national conscience.

“Oh, that’s a good little girl,” they’d tell her, although the reaction is somewhat understandable considering the circumstances at the time.

“The profession I wanted to do did not exist,” Hughes-Fulford said.

Still, she was undeterred, which is the only lesson she said she hopes anyone takes from her story. After she switched to chemistry and biology at Tarleton State University, she graduated in 1968. Later, she earned her Ph.D. from Texas Woman’s University in 1972 and has since published more than 120 papers and abstracts on T cell activation, and bone and cancer growth regulation.

But flying never left her blood.

After school, she moved to San Francisco and bought a four-seat plane from a hobby flier looking to get rid of it.

But it was in 1983 when Hughes-Fulford’s dream reached another stratosphere. She was selected as a payload specialist by NASA from a pool of thousands of applicants, and after nine years of intensive training in Houston — it’s not uncommon to see people drop out and families destroyed because of the time requirement — she launched into space.

“I’m finally going to do it,” she said of when she got the call. “It took them long enough.”

As for the launch, she remembers feeling the pressure build slowly during the first minute and wondering if the lethargic start was normal. Wondering, too, when the rocket boosters exploded away from the shuttle as it rose if it was supposed to sound that loud, or if things were going wrong. Not worried, just curious, because as much as they trained, there really isn’t any simulating the real thing.

“When a person’s mind is set, if you’re thinking one way, I don’t think you have fear,” she said.

And then the dust, the silence and the sight of the Earth and then: “I realized, ‘Oh, I could have gotten killed getting up here … My second reaction was, ‘Gee, probably everyone I love, I probably scared to death.”

In orbit, the sun rose and set every 45 minutes. Sleeping was easy because the crew was exhausted from the work. She took pictures. She snapped one of Hawaii, which was the size of her hands cupped together, she said. She hasn’t been back since, however. The training requirement was too much to duplicate with a husband and daughter at home, focusing on medical research full time. But the experience was what she’d hoped for.

“It was everything I thought it was going to be,” she said.

As she and her husband George, a retired commercial pilot for United Airlines, prepare to embark to Florida, Hughes-Fulford said she believes the country’s space program is moving in the right direction, despite recent setbacks. A pair of test flights exploded around a month ago, one of which was for SpaceShipTwo. It was testing whether space tourism will soon be possible. The Spaceship Company, a California-based company owned by Virgin Galactic, has already sold tickets at around $200,000 each for future suborbital flights.

A tourist trip is a lot different than training, but the more people who can experience it, the better, she said.

“I’d fly everyone in the planet if I could,” she said.

The one lesson she hoped anyone takes away from her journey is that the wilder the dream sounds, the better it is.

“Have dreams where people look at you and say you’re crazy because it won’t happen,” she said. “Find your bliss and then follow it. That’s good advice for boys and girls.”

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