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VOICES: Kaua‘i Astronaut, Millie Hughes-Fulford, passes away

On February 2, 2021, an unusual sight caught my eye. The sun glinted off a silvery object sailing silently overhead far above the earth, crossing the sky then passed behind a cloud. The Space Station. Millie, I thought. My phone rang. “Millie just passed away.”

Millie Hughes-Fulford, a neighbor: delightful, fun-loving, energetic, brilliant scientist, and astronaut. Yes, Kapaa, Kauai, was home to Astronaut Millie and George, her retired pilot husband, for several years enjoying the breezes off the ocean, the mountains, and Kauai people.

Born in Mineral Wells, Texas, in 1945, Millie worked in the family grocery and feed store. At age five she found her dream: To be like Wilma Deering, astronaut, in her favorite television space adventure, “Buck Rogers”.

At Tarleton University (later part of the Texas A&M system), age 16, she majored in both chemistry and biology, often the only woman in the classes. She felt hostility from the male students, even the professors and dean. No problem. She earned her doctorate in biochemistry at Texas Woman’s University, then applied for academic jobs; out of about one hundred letters, she heard from four, was accepted at Southwester Medical Center which soon relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area UCSF VA.

When she saw a Family Circle Magazine ad: Applications to be the first woman in space were being accepted, she applied. Out of 8,000, she made it to the final twenty. But Sally Ride was selected for the honor aboard the Challenger. It tragically exploded in June 1983, killing all seven astronauts including Hawaii’s astronaut, Ellison Onizuka. It was five years, 1991, before NASA launched another spaceship. This time, Millie was aboard. She felt no fear on lift off as she focused on her next task, according to her granddaughter, Kira Herzog. (SF Chronicle article.)

Millie’s focus in space (and on earth) was to study the effect of weightlessness on the heart, lungs, and balance by doing many tests on herself and six crewmates. Her work laid a foundation for all the knowledge developed on the effects of space flights. In 1991 when she retired, she opened the Hughes-Fulford Laboratory (UC San Franciso) where she studied the effects of weightlessness on the immune system.

Even when Millie developed lymphoma, she continued writing papers and developing ideas for grants as described by her supervisor and colleague at the VA lab for forty years, Dr. Carl Grunfeld, (San Francisco Chronicle, February 7.) As recently as 2018, Millie partnered with Dr. Aenor Sawyer to start the U of California Space Health Program at UCSF. “Millie was an inspiration…she infused the conversation with compassion, optimism, energy, humor and an un-shakable confidence that a solution could be found.” (Assoc. Press, February 10, 2021.)

We were so lucky to meet Millie and George, neighbors for several years in Kapaa. Our neighbors describe her as follows:

Gay Wallin: “…such a force…We couldn’t have been more different yet like little kids we played well and had fun!”

Cynthia Bloom: “Millie loved Kauai, her Fuji Beach neighborhood and her friends. She enjoyed photographing Kauai’s beauty, riding her bike along the…path, and entertaining…she was devoted to mentoring…generously shared her expertise and insights…especially…with students…A member of Kauai Board of Realtors.”.

Dileep Bal, M.D.: “Millie was truly an intellectual heavyweight and I valued her for her signal contributions.”

Bill Fernandez: “Millie was an incredible, wonderful, woman.”

Diane Bedell (daughter of Judith Fernandez): “Meeting Astronaut Millie was so inspiring…the highlight of my visit…I can’t wait to tell my STEAM students,”

Millie is survived by her daughter, Tori Herzog, and granddaughters Kira and Shoshana, of Mill Valley, CA.

We wish her a warm aloha. It was a privilege to know her.


Judith Fernandez is a resident of Kapa‘a. NOTE: I quote from other articles: New York Times: February 16, 2021; Associated Press: February 10 and 11, 2021; San Francisco Chronicle, February 7, 2021
Source: The Garden Island

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