Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford: First Female Scientist in Space

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The Legacy
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Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford: First Female Scientist in Space

First Female Scientist in Space
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Words by:

Grace Battle

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Words by:

Grace Battle

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Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford was an innovative and mold-breaking scientist, loving mother, and the first female scientist in space. For most, one of those accomplishments would be enough for a lifetime; for Millie, it was just another day’s work. She dedicated her life to science, and her groundbreaking research has made modern space travel a reality. 

For Millie, embarking on a space expedition had been her dream since childhood. Her passion was ignited when she was only five years old, well before space travel became a reality. An avid science fiction fan, Dr. Hughes-Fulford’s dreams were inspired, in part, by Buck Rogers. Space exploration was exclusive to men, however, so Dr. Hughes-Fulford opted to study science, patiently waiting her time until women were allowed to fly aboard a spacecraft. 

"I was watching Buck Rogers in 1950 when I was 5 years old, and their pilot was a woman named Wilma Deering. I wanted to be Wilma Deering because she could wear pants. At that time a little girl could not go around in pants. I would sneak off in my pair of Levi's and I would hear, 'Get out of those Levi's, put your dress on!'" she explained to the VA in 2014. "And so I wanted to be Wilma Deering because she could wear anything she wanted to, she flew a spaceship and was a professional woman."

"Get out of those Levi's, put your dress on!"

Dr. Hughes-Fulford was born in 1945 in Mineral Wells, a town in rural north-central Texas. Upon graduation from high school, she left home to study chemistry and biology at Tarleton State University, earning her Bachelor of Science. Skipping over a master’s to dive deeper into the disciple, Dr. Hughes-Fulford began her study of plasma chemistry as a National Science Foundation Fellow at Texas Woman’s University, eventually receiving a MacArthur Genius Grant and an American Association of University Women Fellowship for her doctoral research. In 1972, she earned her PhD and a spot at UT Southwestern as a postdoctoral fellow studying the regulation of cholesterol metabolism. 

In 1978, Dr. Hughes-Fulford applied to be the first woman in space after seeing an advertisement in Family Circle magazine. Although she was a finalist in the NASA competition, she was not selected for the role. Refusing to let it deter her, Dr. Hughes-Fulford continued to pursue her dream of going where few before had gone. 

After eight years of patiently waiting for her trip, due in part to the Challenger explosion, Dr. Hughes-Fulford flew on the STS-40, the first mission to include three women aboard the spacecraft, as NASA’s first female payload specialist. 

"It was a life's dream, and not many of us get our life's dream.”

While in orbit, the crew completed 18 experiments, many of which were on themselves, and returned to Earth with groundbreaking medical data, more so than any other mission, documenting how space flight impacts the functions of the human body. 


Millie aboard the SLS-1
Millie aboard the SLS-1.
Dr. Hughes-Fulford on the Space Life Sciences-1 (SLS-1) Spacelab module in 1991.


Although her journey in space was over, Dr. Hughes-Fulford would continue to research the impact of microgravity on cells at the University of California at San Francisco.

“When we go into spaceflight and we have microgravity, we have eliminated one variable. In mathematics, if you get rid of a variable, you can solve the equation, and we’re able to look at the immune system in a whole new way that has not been possible,” she expressed in an interview with the ISS National Laboratory. 

To put it in layman’s terms, our immune systems operate differently without the presence of gravity. Eliminate gravity from the equation, and we are able to understand our immune functions in a new light.

Dr. Hughes-Fulford continued to run experiments in space from her laboratory, beginning in 1996 and continuing for nearly 20 years. In 2002, she examined the PKC signal activation on members of the ISS, and in 2006, she sent an incubator to the International Space Station that included samples of T cells and a centrifuge to activate the cells. 

“What we are looking for are new ways to regulate the immune system to help people on Earth,” Dr. Hughes-Fulford explained in an interview with the VA in 2014. “It’s not just for the four people who may go to Mars in 2025, although it will help them, too, it’s about people on Earth, especially the elderly.”

This research on immunology continued until 2015. Through these studies, Dr. Hughes-Fulford found the basis for the effect of space flight on the immune system, revealing microgravity as the root cause of T-cell dysfunction.


Millie sitting in her laboratory.
Dr. Hughes-Fulford in her laboratory.


Ever an advocate for science, Dr. Hughes-Fulford devoted her life to the study of the impacts of microgravity on the human body, even after she became ill with lymphoma. She contributed to over 120 academic papers and founded the UC Space Health program. In 2013, her research and outer space experimentation was awarded by NASA as a top discovery. 

Dr. Hughes-Fulford was the director of her own laboratory, of which now bears her name, while also teaching biochemistry and biophysics at the San Francisco Medical Center. 

She is survived by her daughter, two granddaughters, and sister. 

Many careers in science have been made possible by Millie’s contributions to the scientific community. As space exploration rapidly evolves, her legacy will continue to aid in the travel beyond our world. With three fellowships, two degrees, one trip to space, and countless hours of research, Millie Hughes-Fulford led a truly remarkable life that will be celebrated for generations to come. 

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