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Lucid Lands on Both Feet After Record-Setting Flight

NASA: Astronaut surprises doctors on return to Earth by walking with shuttle crew mates after 188 days in orbit.

September 27, 1996|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — She's home at last.

After a record-setting 188 days in space, Shannon Lucid--biochemist, pioneer astronaut and mother with a hankering for potato chips and chocolate--returned to planet Earth on Thursday aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

As the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean, the silvery shuttle glided into view here, its arrival heralded by a double-barreled sonic boom. It rolled to a stop on the long runway at Kennedy Space Center at 8:13 a.m. EDT.

"Welcome home," said Mission Control.

Among a crowd of several hundred gathered at the landing site were Lucid's husband, Michael, her three grown children and her father, Oscar Wells of Bethany, Okla.

"I'm thankful it's over," said Wells, a retired minister.

So, clearly, is Lucid, 53, who was scheduled to complete her unprecedented space odyssey last month but spent an extra six weeks aboard the Russian space station Mir because of weather and mechanical snafus that delayed liftoff of Atlantis, her ride home.

After more than half a year beyond the reach of gravity, Lucid was expected to be weak, perhaps even unable to walk. But 45 minutes after touchdown, Lucid surprised National Aeronautics and Space Administration doctors by insisting that she walk with her five crew mates from Atlantis to a bus.

"She was a little wobbly, a little woozy, but she said, 'No, I can do it,' " said David Leetsma, director of flight crew operations.

On Mir, Lucid spent as much as two hours a day on a treadmill so she would have the strength to leave Atlantis under her own power.

Leetsma said Lucid's departure from the shuttle was delayed about 10 minutes because a catch on her space helmet became jammed and a technician had to be summoned to help get it off.

"I'm happy to say she's in great shape," reported NASA administrator Daniel Goldin, who greeted her aboard the bus. "Her spirits are terrific. She's such a positive person."

Added Goldin: "She has a toughness and she has an ability to perform. She stuck with it. She's my hero."

President Clinton called from the Oval Office to congratulate her. "I couldn't believe you walked off the shuttle," he said.

Clinton had sent a letter of commendation and a large box of M&Ms embossed with the presidential seal. During her stay on Mir, Lucid confessed to having a sweet tooth and said she especially craved M&Ms.

That extraterrestrial endorsement prompted the New Jersey-based M&M/Mars Corp. to dispatch a couple of public relations executives and a truckload of the candy to the space center. And, along with the visitor center at the Kennedy Space Center, it sponsored a welcome-home party for Lucid in which people who wanted to come were to be bused to a site near the landing strip. NASA security vetoed that plan, however--disappointing about 1,000 people who had turned out in response to full-page newspaper ads.

"I don't think we should turn the space program into a set of infomercials," Goldin said.

Although she had been aboard four previous shuttle missions, and is now the most frequent female flier in American space history, Lucid rocketed into the atmosphere March 21 as a virtual unknown. But she returned a full-blown celebrity.

She was the first American woman to live aboard Mir, a 250-ton orbiting research complex on which American astronauts will have a continuing presence for the next two years. On Sept. 7 she broke the women's space endurance record set in 1995 by Russian astronaut Elena Kondakova.

Lucid was replaced aboard the 10-year-old Mir on Sept. 19 by fellow American astronaut John E. Blaha. She took the mid-deck seat that Blaha had occupied aboard Atlantis for the journey home.

During her 4,512 hours in space, Lucid circled Earth 3,008 times, traveled 75 million miles, and, especially when her trip home was delayed, displayed a good-humored nature that endeared her to her Russian hosts and the American public.

"She's done something nobody else has done and done it with an attitude and enthusiasm that I think has captured the entire country," said Leetsma.

When Lucid was blasted into space aboard the same shuttle that brought her home, spring was just two days old. Major league baseball players were just loosening up. Lamar Alexander was considered a viable presidential contender. Liz Taylor was still married to Larry Fortensky.

Lucid missed the whole summer.

From space she also reported missing her family, junk food, visits to the bookstore, bicycle riding and hot water. Lucid has not taken a shower in more than six months.

Lucid also missed gravity. Scientists said she will need time to readjust to the feel of life on Earth after more than half a year of weightlessness. Although Lucid carried out a full load of scientific duties for both NASA and the Russians, she is also part of the experiment. She underwent at least five hours of medical tests Thursday, including a magnetic resonance imaging exam to study any changes in her tissues and bones.

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