'Brilliant': Loved ones remember MW native, astronaut and scientist

Millie Hughes-Fulford, a native of Mineral Wells, was the first woman to fly as a NASA payload specialist, and made significant advancement as both an astronaut and scientist.

MINERAL WELLS, Texas -- Millie Hughes-Fulford accomplished a lot in her career while blazing a trail in history.

Hughes-Fulford, the first woman to fly as a NASA payload specialist, died Feb. 2 after a battle with cancer. She was 75. 

“She was just brilliant,” said her friend Lela Abernathy. “She was kind, and just extremely down to earth for somebody who’s been around the world.”

Growing up in Mineral Wells, Texas, Hughes-Fulford’s interest in science started early -- at about age 5 -- after watching Buck Rogers and his sidekick, Wilma Deering, two characters credited with bringing space exploration into popular media.

Millie Hughes-Fulford

“She wanted to be Wilma Deering because she was a woman and she got to go to space and she got to wear pants instead of a dress,” said Hughes-Milford’s daughter, Tori Herzog. “Back then, all of the astronauts were men, short and usually in the Air Force.

“She was none of that. She was tall and a woman.”

Hughes-Fulford -- who graduated in 1962 at age 16 from Mineral Wells High School — found inspiration in one of her chemistry teachers, who propelled her interest in science.

“Science and research was always her calling,” Herzog said. “To the day she died, she was constantly doing research. It was her passion and her love.”

Hughes-Fulford earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and biology from Tarleton State University in Stephenville in 1968. That year, she began graduate work studying plasma chemistry at Texas Woman’s University in Denton as a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. She continued as an American Association of University Women fellow from 1971 to 1972. Upon completing her doctorate at Texas Women’s University in 1972, she joined the faculty of Southwestern Medical School, at the University of Texas in Dallas, as a postdoctoral fellow, where her research focused on regulation of cholesterol metabolism.

Hughes-Fulford was selected as a payload specialist in January 1983 and flew in June 1991 aboard the space shuttle Columbia on the STS-40 Spacelab Life Sciences mission, the first mission dedicated to biomedical studies. 

Prior to her selection, Hughes-Fulford was a research professor at University of California, San Francisco, from which she took a leave in 1984 to move to Houston to began her career as an astronaut. Around that time, she had enlisted in the U.S. Army as well.

The mission flew more than 3.2 million miles, completing 146 orbits around Earth, and its crew completed more than 18 experiments during a nine-day period, bringing back more medical data than any previous NASA mission.

After her flight, Hughes-Fulford continued her research, overseeing several experiments that flew aboard the space shuttle and to the International Space Station. She was the principal investigator on a series of SpaceHab/Biorack experiments, which examined the regulation of bone cell growth. These experiments flew on space shuttle missions STS-76, STS-81 and STS-84 and contributed to studies examining the root causes of osteoporosis as it occurs in astronauts during spaceflight.

“By using all her experience in space, she could bring that back to Earth and try to apply it to people and come up with a solution,” Herzog said.

In 1991, the Hughes-Fulford Laboratory was opened at the San Francisco VA Healthcare System, with the purpose of understanding mechanisms which regulate mammalian cell growth, according to the laboratory’s website.

“She did so many things — she didn’t just stick to one subject,” Herzog said. “She always had a lot of things in the fire at the same time. It seems like she was always writing grants to get more funding for her research.”

The lab has several ongoing research projects, which include investigating the role of dietary fatty acids in prostate cancer cell growth, the response of osteoblasts to mechanical loading and the signal transduction cascades and gene expression occurring during T-cell activation.

Hughes-Fulford examined changes in T-cell gene induction in spaceflight as part of a NASA European Space Agency experiment on which she collaborated, which flew to the space station in September 2006. That study examined the mechanism of action causing the decrease in T-cell activation in microgravity, a medical problem first discovered in Apollo astronauts upon their return to Earth. 

More recently, Hughes-Fulford and her team, along with their international colleagues, published a featured article in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology showing, for the first time, that microgravity itself is the root cause of T-cell dysfunction. In July 2013, NASA awarded her work as a top discovery on the International Space Station. In January 2015, her immunology experiment with the National Institutes of Health flew on a SpaceX mission to the space station. 

NASA presentation

Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford, shown here in 2016 presenting her work on space environment effects on immune function and a previously undiscovered mechanism of self-limiting induction that limits T-cell immune response.

As a child, Herzog wasn’t sheltered from her mother’s work. During one summer around the age of 10, Herzog visited the lab with her mom and helped with experiments, and Herzog became an official published author in a medical journal.

By the time Herzog finished high school, her mother was already in the astronaut program.

“She was always trying to get me interested in science because she thought that would be a good path for me,” Herzog said. “Math and science always came very easy to me, I think because I grew up with it, but I felt like I would always be in her shadow, and I went and became an accountant.”

The interest in science and math trickled down to one of Herzog’s daughters as well, and her other daughter, a journalism and political science major, hopes to write a biography in the near future using recorded interviews done with her grandmother over the last several months.

“That was the great thing about COVID-19 is it just grounded us all and we got to be more close-knit and be around my mom more,” Herzog said. 

Herzog said a lot of her mother’s last month was spent in the hospital — a challenge for a mother and daughter who talked several times a day every day — but the two were able to spend the last week together after Hughes-Fulford was discharged to their home in San Francisco.

“She was a really special person with a brilliant mind, but she was a person first and an astronaut second,” Herzog said.

 

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