This week’s retirement of Shannon Lucid – one of the first six female astronauts selected by NASA, way back in January 1978 – truly marked the end of an era. When she was chosen as one of 35 candidates for the Shuttle program, more than three decades ago, the space agency operated in a very different world: a world dominated by the glory of the past and the triumphant Apollo lunar landings, but carrying much promise for the future. With a reusable fleet of orbiters expected to fly dozens of times each year, Lucid was not alone in hoping that her astronaut career might guide her to the stars several times. As circumstances transpired, she became the first female astronaut to chalk up five flights and the first woman to participate in a long-duration mission. For more than 15 years, she held the unchallenged record as the world’s most flight-experienced female spacefarer.
Today, the woman who now holds this last accolade, Peggy Whitson, is NASA’s chief astronaut. She described Lucid as someone who “paved the way for so many of us” and acquiesced that the jovial, grandmotherly character was “a model astronaut” who “always brought a smile to our faces”. Yet Lucid’s life story and her years as an astronaut pale in comparison with the trials and tribulations which she and her family faced. Aged only 17, she had written to Time magazine to ask why female candidates were not being accepted into NASA’s early astronaut classes. In her twenties, she tackled a prejudicial professor who wondered why she wanted a career in biochemistry…after all, he told her, she was a girl! Her journey to the stars was also motivated by something else: as a Baptist, which barred female preachers, she yearned to get closer to God than her father. Lucid’s story is one of triumph over adversity and it is all the more remarkable in that her formative years were in a Chinese prisoner-of-war camp.
Shannon Matilda Wells Lucid was the last of the six woman, picked in 1978, to fly into space, although this did little to dim her impact on the space program; many students know that Neil Armstrong was also the last of his class to fly. Aged 42 when she made her first flight in June 1985, Lucid scored another record as the oldest female spacefarer to date. She had been born in war-torn China on 14 January 1943 and her experiences there make it unsurprising that she grew up with a “zest for life, steely determination and resourcefulness”, according to one writer. Her parents, Oscar and Myrtle Wells, were Baptist missionaries and they, together with Shannon, her younger brother, Joe, her aunts and an uncle and her grandparents were taken captive by the Japanese army and held in Shanghai’s Chapei Civil Assembly Centre camp. She learned to walk in early 1944, whilst aboard the Swedish ship Gripsholm, which returned her family to the United States as part of an exchange of non-combatant citizens of the warring nations.
It was long and arduous voyage and, during a stopover at Johannesburg in South Africa, she received her first pair of shoes. After the war, the family returned to China – living at times in Shanghai, Anking and the particularly brutalized city of Nanking – and Shannon found herself the centre of attention, due to her blonde hair and blue eyes. Her fierce desire to read prompted her parents to place her in a Chinese elementary school. Aged five, she took her first flight in an aircraft. As the DC-3 flew over mountainous terrain and touched down on a gravel runway, the young girl was convinced that flying was the most remarkable thing for a human being to do…and steeled herself to do the same when she grew up. Her family was expelled from China in 1949, after the Communist Revolution, and the young girl received schooling in Bethany, Oklahoma.
She entered the University of Oklahoma to study chemistry and received her degree in 1963. By now, the first teams of astronauts had already been selected and Lucid was astonished that all of them were male; in fact, she had written to Time magazine in 1960, overtly criticizing NASA for choosing only men. Space exploration had fascinated her, ever since she read about the rocket experiments of Robert Goddard…but there was another motive. “The Baptists wouldn’t let women preach,” she once said, “so I had to become an astronaut to get closer to God than my father!” During her undergraduate studies, she took flying lessons, gained her license and encountered another cruel and harsh reality of life. One day, in her final year of study, she sat down with her professor to discuss her options for getting a job. The professor looked at her blankly. “A job?” he asked. “You plan on working? But you’re a girl!” It underlined the reality that women were not taken seriously in many professional careers. Despite having a private license, her efforts to become a commercial pilot led nowhere, for the same reasons.
Fortunately, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, with their incessant civil rights campaigning, smoothed the road and she found work in academia as a teaching assistant and research chemist, firstly at her alma mater, then at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and finally at the Kerr-McGee oil and gas corporation. By now married to Michael Lucid, she returned to study at the University of Oklahoma, earning a master’s degree in biochemistry in 1970 and a PhD in 1973. With her doctorate, Lucid gained a job as a research associate at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City and remained in this position until NASA called for astronaut applicants. Lucid “scrambled” to complete and submit her application. In late August 1977, she was invited to Houston as part of the third group of finalists to be interviewed…a 20-strong group which included a subset of individuals whose presence, a decade earlier, would have been inconceivable: eight women. Three those eight women – Lucid, Anna Fisher and Rhea Seddon – would form half of the female component of the astronaut class announced in January 1978.
Even her selection might not have happened, but for what Deke Slayton, in his own inimitable style, called “some last-minute political bullshit”. This appeared to centre on the fact that only one woman originally made NASA’s final cut and five pilots had to be dropped in favor of five female mission specialists. “They got selected a couple of years later,” Slayton said of the pilots and, indeed, several pilots who reached the semi-final stage in 1978 were chosen in 1980. The identity of the ‘one woman’ has never been divulged, but underlines the importance that NASA placed in its public image and its need to hire an astronaut class which truly represented the depth and breadth of America. As the oldest woman in the group, Lucid was also the only mother.
“It’s a remarkable story,” fellow astronaut John Fabian said of Lucid’s life. “It’s a story of the human spirit and I love to tell it…because kids don’t realize what opportunities really lie ahead of them. Some are very quick to worry about the disadvantages that they have in their own lives, or as they perceive in their own lives, and I think the Shannon Lucid story is just a great story about overcoming obstacles and blasting through ceilings and knocking down doors and never letting anything get in the way of doing the things that you believe are right.” On her first flight, Mission 51G in June 1985, Lucid’s responsibilities were heavy; along with Fabian, she was charged with the deployment of three communications satellites and the release and retrieval of the Spartan free-flying astronomy telescope.
Mission 51G was also notable in that its crew included the first member of royalty ever to fly into space: a Saudi prince named Sultan Salman Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, nicknamed ‘Sultan’. Although Sultan himself was a genial fellow and integrated well into the crew, he had already created waves by requesting that he perform a lunar crescent observation – a thinly veiled ‘experiment’ whose purpose was actually religious, to observe the Moon at the end of the Ramadan fasting period – and would inadvertently create several more amongst his country folk during the course of the mission. Lucid’s contemporary, astronaut Mike Mullane, was sitting in Mission Control during 51G and clearly remembered the events in his memoir, Riding Rockets.
He was given a note by one of NASA’s public affairs officials, requesting that the crew should wear trousers, not shorts, during an upcoming press conference. “When the note came to me, I understood its intent,” wrote Mullane. “Public Affairs was concerned that the Arab world might find it offensive for one of their princes to be seen hovering in mid-air with a woman’s naked legs prominently displayed next to him.” Mullane threw the note in the trash. In his mind, he was not prepared to tell an American woman, on an American spacecraft, to modify her dress “to accommodate the values of a medieval, repressive society, where women couldn’t drive cars, let alone fly space shuttles.”
For her own part, Lucid had no love for the Saudis. After the mission, invited to meet King Fahd, with the rest of the crew, in Riyadh, she refused. “She particularly objected to Saudi treatment of young women and disfigurement,” John Fabian recalled, “and she didn’t want to be a part of that. There was a lot of time and effort spent convincing her otherwise, to absolutely no avail.” When the other astronauts arrived in Riyadh, they were greeted by Al-Saud, whose looked around for Lucid. Her absence did not go down well with the sultan or the king…or with President Ronald Reagan. “Well, the King called the President,” recalled Fabian. “The President called the NASA Administrator. The NASA Administrator called the Johnson Space Center Director…and Shannon was on the next 747!”
Lucid may have lost the battle, but she won the war, for she spent barely a day in Saudi Arabia, shook King Fahd’s hand, and returned promptly home. In Riding Rockets, Mike Mullane had a slightly different take on the story. “Shannon’s husband could not make the trip,” he wrote. “Shannon wasn’t concerned. She didn’t need a man to hold her hand. Wrong. Saudi Arabia did not allow women to enter the country alone. She had to have a male escort. When Shannon heard this, she told [NASA] Headquarters she wasn’t going.” It was decided to admit Lucid into Saudi Arabia as the honorary daughter of 51G commander Dan Brandenstein or the honorary sister of John Fabian or, worst of all, as an honorary man! “I immediately went to Shannon’s office and congratulated her on having achieved the highest honor a woman could ever hope to achieve: to be designated an honorary man,” the notoriously chauvinistic Mullane continued. “Shannon had a lively sense of humor and laughed at my antics…but I made certain not to walk down the stairs in front of her for the next few weeks!”
Several other male members of the astronaut corps also could not resist making light of the situation. Joe Engle approached Lucid with his congratulations: “God, that is really an honor, Shannon.”
“Well, we could get you honorary privileges to the men’s room down here!”
Lucid picked up a paperweight and made as if to throw it. Other astronauts rolled with laughter.
If the first half of Lucid’s life formed her into one of the most remarkable individuals ever to journey beyond the atmosphere, then that life experience was put to use in her next four flights. In the wake of the Challenger accident, she deployed the Galileo spacecraft to Jupiter, oversaw the release of NASA’s fifth Tracking and Data Relay Satellite and participated in the second dedicated Spacelab life sciences mission. At the end of her third mission, in August 1991, she had accumulated three weeks in space – more than any other woman – and she continue to build upon this record: two more weeks would be added to the tally at the end of her fourth flight in November 1993 and her pioneering expedition to Russia’s Mir station in March-September 1996 would tack on another 188 days. Returning to Earth in the autumn of 1996, Lucid had spent a combined total of 223 days aloft. Some have described her dealings with the Russians as having helped to create huge warmth between two distant partners in what was, at times, a difficult relationship.
No other woman would exceed Lucid’s 188-day single-flight record until June 2007 and no other woman would surpass her total record until Peggy Whitson – who “always will look up to her” – flew her second expedition to the International Space Station in 2007-2008. If Shannon Lucid’s story was so rich in the years before her selection as an astronaut, then it has been equally rich since her return from her final mission. For years, she aspired for a sixth flight and was certainly participating in active EVA training for the International Space Station in 2000, but shortly thereafter another route beckoned and her immense scientific and human talents were channeled into the position of NASA’s Chief Scientist.
During her time in this post, from February 2002 until September 2003, Lucid oversaw the development and implementation of projects and programs to communicate the space agency’s scientific goals to a wider world. Returning to the astronaut office, her remaining time with NASA saw her as a regular in Mission Control, talking to the orbiting crews aboard the International Space Station. With Lucid’s well-earned retirement, only one other astronaut from the 1978 class – Anna Fisher – remains with the agency, although she has long since moved into a managerial role. The last of the ‘Thirty Five New Guys’ to have flown in space was Steve Hawley, way back in 1999. As Lucid retires, one chapter closes…but a new one must always begin.
Ben, thank you for this amazing article about a woman who inspires us all.