Heroes of Space: Shannon Lucid

The staunch space heroine who blazed a trail for female astronauts

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Lucid was the only American woman to serve on board the Russian space station Mir. Image Credit: NASA

Lucid was the only American woman to serve on board the Russian space station Mir. Image Credit: NASA

Although she is now regarded as a great American hero, Shannon Lucid was actually born in China in 1943. Aged just six weeks, Lucid and her parents were taken to an internment camp and held as prisoners of war for a year by the Japanese. When they were finally released the family returned to the US and Oklahoma became Lucid’s home.

After such an eventful childhood it’s no wonder that the young Lucid’s dream was to discover as much as the world as possible. However, when she realised that most of the world had already been explored she turned her attention to the skies. Inspired by the work of rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, the young woman became determined to explore the universe.

Once she had finished high school Lucid earned her pilots license and achieved a degree in chemistry, followed by a masters and doctoral degree in biochemistry from the University of Oklahoma. She achieved all this while also caring for her young children. Lucid was determined to achieve her dream, so when NASA opened its recruitment to include women, she immediately submitted an application and in 1978 she was accepted. She was the only mother out of the six women selected.

Understandably, there was a great deal of competition between the women to become the first American woman in space. Although she did not achieve this honour, Lucid was completely indifferent to office politics and was dedicated to her own work. This passion and commitment set her apart from her fellow classmates. In 1985 she took her maiden voyage into space on the shuttle Discovery. She travelled into space on a further three missions but Lucid is best known for her fifth visit.

Lucid, pictured here with fellow astronaut Jerry Ross, was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Image Credit: NASA

Lucid, pictured here with fellow astronaut Jerry Ross, was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Image Credit: NASA

In 1996, Lucid and two Russian cosmonauts, Yuri Onufriyenko and Yuri Usachev, blasted off to the Russian Mir space station. The Russian press couldn’t resist mocking Lucid, saying “women love to clean” so the shuttle should look tidier. She responded by saying that all three members worked as a team. Again, when her fellow astronauts were accused of insulting her by placing tape on the controls they didn’t want her to touch she responded that, were she the captain, she would have done the same thing.

While on board Mir she performed physical and life-science experiments and it was set to be a routine mission. However, her trip home was delayed twice: once due to a mechanical glitch and again because of a hurricane. These various delays ended up extending her stay in space by six weeks. Luckily, despite the media pressure, Lucid got on fantastically with her crew mates and she kept herself occupied with experiments, reading and sending emails home. In September she finally returned home after 188 days in space. Although it was completely unplanned it was the longest any US astronaut had spent in space. Her total of 223 days spent in space broke any record set by a female, American or otherwise.

Lucid became a source of fascination for the NASA scientists, especially after walking to her vehicle immediately after landing. By December she had been awarded the Medal of Honor and in February 1997 she received a Free Spirit Award from the Freedom Forum.

Lucid continued to work for NASA. From 2002 to 2003 she served as a chief scientist, responsible for ensuring that all of NASA’s missions kept to strict standards of scientific quality. In 2003 she returned to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to conduct technical assignments in the Astronaut Office. She then served as a capsule communicator in the Mission Control Center, providing a comforting and friendly voice for those in space. On 31 January 2012 she announced her retirement from NASA, but her pioneering work and inspiring can-do attitude still motivates to this day.

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