Lucid, Shannon (1943—)

views updated

Lucid, Shannon (1943—)

American biochemist and astronaut who set the American record in space, spending 188 days aboard the Russian space station Mir in 1996 . Born Shannon Wells in Shanghai, China, on January 14, 1943; daughter of Joseph Oscar Wells (a Baptist preacher) and Myrtle Wells (a missionary nurse); settled in Bethany, Oklahoma in 1949; graduated from Bethany (Oklahoma) High School, 1960; University of Oklahoma, B.S. in chemistry, 1963, Ph.D. in biochemistry, 1973; a member of NASA's first class of female astronauts, 1978; married Michael Lucid (a chemist), in 1968; children: two daughters, Kawai Dawn Lucid and Shandara Lucid, and one son, Michael Lucid.

On March 22, 1996, 53-year-old Shannon Lucid, a member of NASA's original class of women astronauts and a veteran of four previous space missions, lifted off from Kennedy Space Center aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, which transported her to the ten-year-old Russian space station Mir. There, she joined Russian astronauts Yuri Onufrienko and Yuri Usachev for what was to be a five-month research mission, but which turned into a record-breaking 188-day stay in space, the longest ever by an American. Lucid would circle the Earth more than 3,000 times, covering 75 million miles, before returning home on September 26, 1996. A down-to-earth mother of three, Lucid likened day-to-day life on Mir to "living in a camper in the back of your pickup with your kids… when it's raining and no one can get out."

The daughter of a Baptist minister and a missionary nurse, J. Oscar Wells and Myrtle Wells , Lucid was born in war-torn China in 1943. When she was just six months old, she and her parents were interned in a Japanese prison camp for a year. Oscar and Myrtle kept their daughter alive by feeding her their daily ration of rice, but almost starved to death themselves. The family was eventually turned over to U.S. officials in exchange for Japanese POWs, and remained in the United States until the end of the war, when they returned to China. When the Communists took over in 1949, however, they again returned to the United States, settling permanently in Bethany, Oklahoma, where Oscar embarked on a career as a tent evangelist.

As a youngster, Lucid was fascinated with American frontier history and its pioneering spirit. A biography of rocket pioneer Robert Goddard inspired her to be a space explorer. "People thought I was crazy, because that was long before America had a space program," she said. After graduating as salutatorian of her high school, Lucid earned a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Oklahoma. She also earned her pilot's license and purchased an old Piper Clipper, in which she occasionally flew her father to revival meetings. "The Baptists wouldn't let women preach," she has said, "so I had to become an astronaut to get closer to God than my father."

Lucid was thwarted in her efforts to be part of America's burgeoning space program. The first seven Mercury astronauts were all men, which continues to rankle Lucid. She also faced discrimination in the commercial realm. When she could not get a job as a commercial pilot, she hired on as a chemist at Kerr-McGee Corporation. Her boss was Michael Lucid. Shannon married Michael in 1968 and returned to the University of Oklahoma to pursue a Ph.D. In 1978, when NASA began recruiting women for the astronaut corps, Lucid was ready. Now the mother of two, she was among NASA's first class of female astronauts, which included Rhea Seddon , Kathryn D. Sullivan , Judith Resnik (who would die in the 1986 Challenger disaster), Sally Ride , and Anna Fisher . After the rigorous training program, which included being dragged along dusty roads behind motorcycles to simulate what it would be like to be bounced along the ground tethered to a parachute, and spending hours in the stomach-churning centrifuge, Lucid emerged intact. Her first space mission was aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1985, and was followed by three subsequent journeys into space before her record-breaking mission aboard Mir.

In addition to maintenance and organizational duties aboard the Russian space station, Lucid carried out scientific experiments which involved documenting how a candle burns in space, how protein crystals grow, and how quail embryos developed in zero gravity. To counteract the muscle and bone loss encountered during long periods in space, she also spent two hours a day on the stationary bicycle and treadmill aboard the space station. Although outfitted with a phone-booth-sized sleeping compartment, Lucid preferred to bed down on the floor of her equipment-laden laboratory, which offered a bit more room. When the first shuttle scheduled to bring her home was plagued with safety problems and a second was stalled by Hurricane Fran, Lucid was unflappable, although she did issue an urgent request for a fresh stock of M&Ms and more books. An avid reader, she read close to 50 books while in orbit.

Lucid's arrival home aboard Atlantis on September 26, 1996, was greeted with a collective sigh of relief from NASA and the world at large. No one was happier to see her back on earth than her husband and three children, who had kept in touch through television conferences and daily e-mail. "Who has to write their wife a letter every day?," queried Lucid's husband Mike, who also admitted to not quite under-standing why his wife enjoys "running around in circles up there." Upon landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Lucid surprised everyone by walking off the aircraft. Admitting to feeling a bit "wobbly and woozy," she nonetheless made it the 25 feet to the transporter, where the crew presented her with a 10-pound box of red, white, and blue M&Ms from President Bill Clinton, who later called the astronaut to congratulate her. "I couldn't believe you walked off the shuttle," he said.

From the moment of her touchdown, Lucid became the most valuable medical guinea pig that NASA has ever had, supplying invaluable data as to the effects of space travel. Poked and prodded every day for two weeks after her homecoming, Lucid continued to be monitored intermittently for three years after her space flight. Because only one other woman, Russian cosmonaut Yelena Kondakova , has come close to Lucid's record time in space (169 days as compared to Lucid's 188), it is yet to be seen what long-term effects the prolonged mission might have on the astronaut. Of major concern is bone loss which could result in osteoporosis, and space radiation, which could cause cancer down the road. "That's the sort of thing that 10, 20 years from now maybe we'll have an answer to," said Roger Billica, chief of medical operations at Johnson Space Center.

After initial debriefing, Lucid continued her recuperation at home in Houston, Texas. Although NASA predicted months of readjustment and lethargy, Lucid was browsing bookstores, riding her bike around town, and even skating with her two daughters within record time. In December 1996, a robust and beaming Shannon Lucid was presented the Congressional Space Medal of Honor by President Clinton at a White House ceremony. Said Colonel Richard Mullane, a veteran of three shuttle missions, "The 'Right Stuff' nowadays is being able to thrive in situations a lot of us couldn't have imagined—like six months on a space station with two Russians."


Begley, Sharon. "Lucid's Long Road Home," in Newsweek. September 30, 1996.

Broad, William J. "Six Months in Russian space outpost, her longing for home nears fulfillment," in The Day [New London, CT]. September 19, 1996.

Carroll, Ginny, Peter Katel, Catharine Skipp, and Peter Annin. "Down to Earth," in Newsweek. October 7, 1996, pp. 31–36.

Dunn, Marcia. "After record space romp, Lucid looks forward to normalcy," in The Day [New London, CT]. November 25, 1996.

——. "Astronaut should feel lousy after space stay," in The Day [New London, CT]. September 25, 1996.

——. "Lucid surprises Earthlings by walking off the shuttle," in The Day [New London, CT]. September 27, 1996.

——. "U.S. woman putting in her time in space," in The Day [New London, CT]. July 16, 1996.

Jerome, Richard and Laurel Brubaker Calkins. "Above and Beyond," in People Weekly. Vol. 46, no. 4. July 22, 1996, pp. 36–40.

"Lucid honored," in The Day [New London, CT]. December 3, 1996.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts