In Memoriam: Millie Elizabeth Hughes-Fulford, 1945-2021

Millie Hughes-Fulford, a member of the faculty at the Univerity of California, San Francisco and the first woman to serve as a payload specialist on a space shuttle mission, died at her home in Mill Valley, California, on February 2. She was 75 years old and had suffered from lymphoma.

A native of Mineral Wells, Texas, Dr. Hughes-Fulford entered college at age 16. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology from Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, in 1968. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in radiation chemistry from Texas Woman’s University in 1972. Dr. Hughes-Fulford completed a postdoctoral fellowship studying cholesterol metabolism at what is now the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine in Dallas.

In 1978, she was one of 8,000 women who applied to be an astronaut. She made it into the top 20 prospects but was not selected among the first group of eight women astronauts. Dr. Hughes-Fulford was named a NASA payload specialist in 1983 but her travel to space was postponed due to the Challenger disaster in 1986. She did serve on the crew of Columbia in 1991. On that nine-day mission, Dr. Hughes-Fulford helped complete more than 18 experiments, which included herself and fellow crew members as subjects, as well as rodents and jellyfish. The mission brought back more medical data than any previous NASA mission, including documenting how space flight and microgravity affected the human body, a topic that would remain a focus of Hughes-Fulford’s long scientific career.

After her space flight, she returned to the University of California, San Francisco as a professor of biochemistry and biophysics. She also was named director of the laboratory that now bears her name at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Health Care System, focusing on the impact of microgravity on human cells.

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