Millie Hughes-Fulford at the European Space Agency's Life and Physical Sciences and Life Support Laboratory at ESTEC technical center in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, in April 2013. (Credit: ESA)

Hughes-Fulford, STS-40 payload specialist, in the tunnel connecting space shuttle Columbia's middeck to the Space Life Sciences-1 (SLS-1) Spacelab module in 1991.

Zonta International Honorary Member Millie Hughes-Fulford dies at 75

Millie Hughes-Fulford, the first American woman to enter space as a working scientist and not a professional astronaut, died on 4 February at age 75. Hughes-Fulford has been a Zonta International honorary member since 1991.

In 1983, Hughes-Fulford was selected by NASA to train as a non-career astronaut for a science-dedicated space shuttle mission. Delayed by the 1986 Challenger tragedy, Hughes-Fulford’s first and only launch finally lifted off on the space shuttle Columbia for Spacelab Life Sciences 1 (SLS-1) on 5 June 1991. The launch made her the first female payload specialist to enter orbit and a member of the first crew to include three women.

A molecular biologist at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center at the time, Hughes-Fulford was also the first person to fly in space to represent the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA).

“It was a life’s dream, and not many of us get our life’s dream,” Hughes-Fulford said in a 2014 interview with the VA.

Hughes-Fulford was a member of the STS-40 crew, which completed more than 18 experiments and returned to Earth with more data than any previous NASA spaceflight. She oversaw some of the experiments aboard SLS-1, the fifth Spacelab mission and the first dedicated solely to biomedical research. Hughes-Fulford was awarded the NASA Space Flight medal in 1991 for her research.

After returning home, Hughes-Fulford went back to work at the VA center in San Francisco, where she was made the director of the laboratory that now bears her name. According to, Hughes-Fulford contributed to “more than 120 papers and abstracts on T-cell activation, bone and cancer growth regulation and continued to conduct research in space as the principal investigator for experiments that flew aboard STS-76 in March 1996, STS-81 in January 1997 and STS-84 in May 1997, examining the root causes of osteoporosis that occur in astronauts while in microgravity.”

An adjunct professor for University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Hughes-Fulford had been studying the changes in gene expression in T-cells since around 2003. T-cells are a type of white blood cell and important part of the body’s immune system.

She also flew aboard Soyuz and SpaceX Dragon spacecrafts to the International Space Station (ISS), studying the decrease in T-cell activation and how isolated T-cells were activated in spaceflight.

According to a 2017 UCSF article, Hughes-Fulford’s latest work involved looking at gene expression and the role of microRNA (miRNA), tiny molecules that can switch genes on or off.

Zonta International is grateful for Hughes-Fulford’s research and leadership in science. As proud supporters of women in aerospace, we will move forward with her legacy by continuing to assist women pursuing Ph.D./doctoral degrees in aerospace engineering and space sciences through our Amelia Earhart Fellowship.