HOUSTON — Consider, for a moment, Shannon Lucid's rsum.
She's a professional chemist with a PhD, a licensed pilot, and an astronaut. She's blasted into space five times and holds the American record for consecutive days in orbit around Earth. She's deployed satellites, learned to speak Russian, made Jell-O in microgravity, and raised three children.
It's a remarkable list, to be sure, but it doesn't begin to illustrate the pivotal role Dr. Lucid has played in the evolution of space travel. Her recent 188-day sojourn aboard the Russian space station Mir has changed public perceptions of what astronauts look like, what they're capable of achieving in orbit, and how fruitful global cooperation can be.
None of this has been lost on NASA. Lucid is the agency's biggest star since teacher Christa McAuliffe was picked to ride the shuttle. The celebrity of the "astronaut mom" is inspiring young people, particularly girls, to consider careers in science, and is helping buoy a space program struggling to prove its relevance in an era of fiscal austerity.
"Shannon's mission, and the space program in general, shows what can be achieved when a country as diverse and pluralistic as ours commits itself to a long term goal," says Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut who joined NASA with Lucid in 1978. "It's not easy to do, but the results make it worthwhile."
Since returning to Earth late last month, Lucid has begun talking about her scientific mission and what it's like to spend six months with two Russian cosmonauts in a spacecraft the size of six school buses.
"Looking back, I find it amazing that we ... never really got upset with each other," Lucid said of her primary crewmates, Yuri Onufrienko and Yuri Usachev. "Maybe it's because I don't know the right words in Russian to get upset. But there is just no way that I could have wished for a better crew."
What was it like?
According to Lucid, Mir's cabin was clean, comfortable, and about as humid as "an average day in Houston." The cuisine consisted of items like canned beef with vegetables, pork, potatoes with onions, tomatoes, oranges, and canned fish. On an average day, Lucid spent about six hours conducting experiments, two hours on the treadmill, and about 30 minutes in the evening reading and relaxing.
Some of her happiest moments aboard Mir were spent stargazing. "One of the really neat things about having a long flight is that I've been able to see the seasons' changes over the earth," Lucid said during an in-flight interview. "When I launched in March, the northern part of Earth was covered with snow and ice and I got to see the ice in all the lakes break up and then I got to see the Earth green. It was a very neat experience."
But most of her time aloft was devoted to work. Lucid's mission, and the Mir program itself, are preliminary steps toward what NASA officials hope will be a permanent international presence in space. The US, Russia, Japan, and the 14 European countries have begun to develop the International Space Station. In large part, Lucid's job aboard Mir was to advance that project through scientific tests.
On board, Lucid and her crewmates grew dwarf wheat in a greenhouse, tested the strength of polymers, and spent time on the treadmill, trying to counter the effects of weightlessness on muscle mass. To everyone's surprise, Lucid was able to walk off the Space Shuttle Atlantis without assistance upon her return to Earth.
"I think the thing that a crew person really enjoys is working with the scientific experiments," Lucid says. "It makes the crew person feel like they're part of the investigative team, and I think that's very important for long duration space flight."
By all accounts, it's important for astronauts on long missions to stay busy.
"From my perspective, it's a hardship tour," says Kevin Chilton, Lucid's mission commander. "You're away from your family and friends, and although it's the best scenery in the world, [you're ] working hard in an isolated environment for a long period of time... Imagine [being] inside a tin can in space with no ability to routinely pick up a telephone and talk to home."
After his return from Mir, US astronaut Norman Thaggard suggested on such long missions there should be more contact with family. To that end, NASA arranged for Lucid to speak to her husband, Michael, and her three adult children; Kawai, Shandra, and Michael, once a week by telephone. Lucid also received packages from home on resupply ships, which included books and candy.
Even though Lucid's mission was extended seven weeks because of mechanical problems with the Shuttle (her ride home), she says she wasn't too lonely. "The time went very well because I like to read, and I was very fortunate to have a lot of books. So I think a person who likes to read and can entertain themselves will do fine." Besides, she says, "all life is saying 'hello' and 'good-bye'" to friends and family.
LUCID'S interest in being an astronaut stems from her childhood in Bethany, Okla., where she developed an interest in the pioneers. For a time, she remembers, she felt she had been born in the wrong era, until she read about Robert Goddard and his experiments with rockets.
"I thought, 'well, that's what I can do when I grow up. I can explore space.' And of course when I talked to people about this they thought that would be rather crazy, because that was long before America even had a space program."
In 1978, Lucid was admitted to NASA's first female astronaut class. Since then, she's worn many hats in the space administration, and completed five missions.
But Lucid's journey to Mir could prove to be one of the most crucial in the history of American spaceflight. At a time when NASA is being criticized for cost overruns on several projects, Lucid's immense popularity (coupled with the possible discovery of past life on Mars) could provide enough public support to spare the agency a major cut in its $14 billion budget.
Still, the lasting legacy of Lucid's mission may be the inspiration it provides to all generations who stare up at the stars and wonder. "I am a middle-school teacher at Floresville, Texas," begins a note e-mailed to Lucid. "I cannot tell you how important your work has been for all females involved with science. My students will benefit from your example. Thanks for being brave and bold. We love you!"
*Until November 15, Lucid's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org