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Millie Hughes-Fulford (1945–2021), first female payload specialist for NASA

by Linnea Crowther

Millie Hughes-Fulford was the first woman to go into space as a payload specialist, the scientists who work aboard NASA’s space missions.

Researching humans in space

Hughes-Fulford was initially selected as a payload specialist in 1986, but her first spaceflight was delayed by the 1986 Challenger explosion, which put a halt to the U.S. space program for several years. It was 1991 before Hughes-Fulford went to space aboard the space shuttle for Spacelab Life Sciences 1 (SLS-1), the first U.S. space mission to include three women on its crew. It was a mission dedicated to biomedical research, and among Hughes- Fulford’s duties was drawing blood from her crewmates. She spent nine days in space on the mission, and afterward, she remained at the landing site to help provide data on how human bodies readjust to gravity.

Hughes-Fulford was a researcher at San Francisco’s VA medical center, and she later directed the center’s Hughes-Fulford Laboratory, where cell growth in mammals is studied. Her experiments were included in later space missions including STS-76, studying the osteoporosis that affects astronauts in space. Later, her experiments flew with Soyuz and SpaceX Dragon, studying T-cell activation in astronauts.

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Hughes-Fulford on her T-cell research

“What we are looking for are new ways to regulate the immune system to help people on Earth. It’s not just for the four people who may go to Mars in 2025 (although it will help them, too), it’s about people on Earth, especially the elderly.” —from a 2014 interview for the San Francisco VA Health Care System

Tributes to Millie Hughes-Fulford

Full obituary: CollectSpace

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