Down to Earth

CAPT. DAN DALY AND TONY ROMANO WERE READY TO PLAY THEIR part on the new frontier. Members of the rescue team that meets every space shuttle landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, they had been obsessively practicing their moves days ahead of time. Using their interlocked arms as a seat, they would lift astronaut Shannon Lucid from the specially padded recliner in the shuttle Atlantis, carry her six feet to the hatch as gently as any curator ever carried a FabergE egg, ease her out and then lift her onto a gurney in the ""crew transporter'' for the short ride to Kennedy's Operations and Checkout Building. The duo had practiced the drill on a dummy umpteen times. ""You don't want to make any mistakes,'' says Daly, 31, such as dropping an astronaut whose bones have been made brittle by, in Lucid's case, a record-shattering 188 days in space. So when Atlantis streaked through the wispy clouds over south Florida last week, Daly and Romano took their positions on the tarmac.

After the ungainly bird touched down, flight surgeon Gaylen Johnson raced on board, immediately checking Lucid's respiration and pulse rate. Two NASA technicians assigned to help the astronauts out of their spacesuits were right behind him. (It was ""Star Trek'' meets ""Home Improvement'': Lucid's helmet was stuck, so the technicians spent 15 tense minutes wrestling it off with pliers and screwdriver.) Then it was Daly and Romano's turn. ""We were expecting to find her on the recliner,'' says Daly. But Lucid, defying every prediction of space biologists, was standing. The two men gently held her arms as she walked the short distance to the hatch, then helped her out, headfirst, and prepared to help carry her to the transporter. But as Lucid's face glowed in the first sunshine to warm her skin since she rocketed off Earth last March 22, she said, ""No, I can stand up.''

And if Shannon Lucid says she can do it, she can do it.

Although the 53-year-old astronaut was ""wobbly and woozy,'' according to David Leestma, NASA's director of flight-crew operations, she walked the 25 feet to the transporter, making up with pure grit what 188 days and 67,454,841 nautical miles in space had wrung out of her in muscle and bone strength. ""She's in great shape,'' exulted NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. He met Lucid in the crew transporter with a huge gold-wrapped box of M&M's from President Clinton (during her six months on the Russian space station Mir, Lucid issued more SOS's for M&M's than a castaway for a rescue ship). In a phone call from the White House, Clinton told a grinning Lucid, ""I couldn't believe you walked off that shuttle.'' That she did was a tribute to sheer willpower--and exercise machines. She logged almost 400 hours on the stationary bicycle and treadmill aboard Mir, determined to prove that long spaceflights needn't leave you a temporary cripple. ""I'll tell you,'' said shuttle commander William F. Readdy, ""there was a woman who absolutely had her mind set on walking off that orbiter.''

Maybe it didn't have quite the thrill of Neil Armstrong's ""one giant leap for mankind'' on the moon 27 years ago, but Lucid's small steps promised to become a part of space lore in their own right. When Russian cosmonauts return from months of duty on Mir, they typically leave the return spaceship on stretchers; virtually everyone at NASA, from the rescue crew on up, expected Lucid to be carried off Atlantis. Lucid is no superwoman--once in the transporter, she lay on a gurney--but she had shown throughout her space odyssey true grace as well as grit, a temerity and determination that astronauts of the 21st century will need in abundance. For space is no longer about riding a pillar of fire into orbit and taking a few spins around the planet just to put another patriotic notch in NASA's belt. ""In the early days the mission was just getting up there--and that was a huge deal,'' says Dr. Norman Thagard, who spent four months on Mir before Lucid. ""Now you've got to do something productive while you're in orbit.'' Lucid's mission--marked by cosmonauts coming and going, unmanned cargo ships docking with Mir, spacewalks and a herculean effort to resist the biological ravages of weightlessness--""is a prototype for [that] future,'' said astronaut Carl Walz, one of the Atlantis crew members. Starting late next year, if all goes as planned, that ""something'' will mean building, in low Earth orbit, the international space station.

LUCID ISN'T FINISHED BLAZING the trail to tomorrow. Now she gets to be a medical guinea pig, the most important body of data--literally--that NASA has ever gotten its stethoscopes on. Having spent more time in space than any other American and any other female earthling, Lucid is Exhibit A in whether a couple of hours a day on a treadmill is enough to prevent bones from becoming as brittle as praline and the cardiac muscle as limp as day-old fish. As soon as she lay down in the crew transporter, physicians began exhaustive tests to determine how weightlessness had affected her heart, muscles, bones, blood, urine, saliva, balance, strength, aerobic capacity--in short, anything that can be measured, observed, titrated, counted or otherwise quantified. Inside Kennedy Space Center, her first stop after a quick reunion with her husband and three grown children, was the MRI tube. She can look forward to more of the same every day for at least the next two weeks--though she can sleep at her own house--and intermittently for three years or more.

If her life until now is any indication, Lucid is up for it. From the moment Shannon Wells was born, in 1943 in war-torn China, to Baptist preacher Joseph Oscar Wells and Myrtle Wells, a missionary nurse, she never had it easy. When she was 6 weeks old she and her parents were interned in a Japanese prison camp. Not until a year later were they turned over to U.S. officials, in an exchange for Japanese POWs. The Wellses spent the remainder of the war in the United States. They returned to China but had to leave when the communists took over in 1949. They settled in Bethany, Okla.: ""My mother was so happy we were staying in one place again,'' Lucid recalled in a preflight interview. ""And I kept saying, "When are we going to move?' '' Her wanderlust grew into a fascination with America's frontier history. ""I was very interested in being a pioneer. [But] I thought I was born at the wrong time,'' she said. When she stumbled onto a book about rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, she thought, ""Well shoot, I can be a space explorer. Nobody's going to get space all explored before I grow up ... People thought I was crazy because that was long before America had a space program.''

Shannon's passion for science and space befuddled the good people of Bethany. One rainy night the local pharmacist called Shannon's science teacher, Blanche Moon, now 84, and demanded that she get right down to his store. Shannon was trying to buy a witch's brew of chemicals, and the pharmacist wasn't about to believe that they were for a school science project. He wouldn't sell her the poisons until Moon swore that the girl had nothing insidious in mind. Moon did, she told NEWSWEEK, and Shannon got her chemicals.

Her love of science and the frontier wasn't the only reason Shannon's career dreams focused on the heavens. Soon after graduating from Bethany High School in 1960, she earned her pilot's license and occasionally flew her father to revival meetings in an old Piper Clipper she bought. He recalls her saying, ""The Baptists wouldn't let women preach, so I had to become an astronaut to get closer to God than my father.''

By then America had a space program, but the sign at the entrance read MEN ONLY. ""I couldn't believe it when they selected the first seven [Mercury astronauts],'' Lucid said just before rocketing off to Mir. ""I mean, it was incredible, the feeling of anger, because there were no females included in the selection. Even though they were all military people, that didn't justify anything. There was absolutely no reason not to have any females.'' She had experienced the same discrimination when she applied for jobs as a commercial pilot. So she spent 1966 to 1968 as a chemist at Kerr-McGee Corp., where she met Michael Lucid. She hadn't dated much as a kid, Blanche Moon recalls: ""So when I met her husband I asked him, "How did you get Shannon to go out with you?' He joked, "I was her boss'.''

LUCID RETURNED TO THE UNIVERSITY of Oklahoma, where she had earned a B.S. in chemistry in 1963, to pursue a Ph.D. By now she wasn't letting anything stand in her way. The day before a biochemistry exam, in 1970, she gave birth to her second child, Shandara. Prof. A. Chadwick Cox had assumed that Lucid would recuperate from labor for a few days and then take a makeup. But there she was on exam day. ""What in the world are you doing here?'' he remembers asking her out of concern. Lucid didn't miss a beat. ""I've studied hard for this exam, and I'm not going to study for it again,'' Cox remembers her saying. She took the exam then and there. Three years later, when NASA finally began recruiting women for the astronaut corps, Lucid scrambled to submit an application. NASA took her, one of the first six women, along with Sally Ride, ever selected for astronaut training.

The women were dragged by motorcycles along dusty roads (to simulate a parachute dragging them), wriggled out of a spacecraft into a wave-tossed sea, dealt with stomachs in rebellion from spinning around like a sample in a centrifuge. They proved that the Right Stuff does not reside on the Y chromosome. Lucid's first flight came in 1985, on the space shuttle Discovery, and she logged three more (558 orbits of Earth) before her mission to Mir. This one sorely tested her unflappability. When word leaked out that the cosmonauts stuck red tape all over the communications panel when they left Mir for a spacewalk, a loud message that Lucid was not to mess with it, she said that she would do the same thing if it were her ship.

Most trying of all, she was supposed to spend ""only'' 140 days or so in orbit. But the first shuttle scheduled to haul her home was rushed back into the hangar when NASA suspected safety problems. The next launch was scrubbed by Hurricane Fran. Lucid was itching to see her family. ""When July arrived, I started to count the days down until I would be home again,'' she said in a news conference from space.

BUT SHE REMAINED EVEN-TEMPERED. Her secret: M&M's, e-mail and work. Norm Thagard had warned her about cosmonauts' love of jellied fish, so Lucid made sure to pack dried beef, dehydrated rice, peanut butter, shrimp, M&M's and pudding. She was in frequent e-mail contact with her husband, a manager at Shell Oil in Houston, daughters Kawai Dawn (named after the Hawaiian island and time of day she was conceived, during the Lucids' 1968 honeymoon) and Shandara, 26, and Michael, 21.

She also had lots of books--""David Copperfield,'' histories of the American West. Not that it was easy establishing a long-distance lending library. ""I picked out one [that her daughters had sent up on a re-supply ship in August] and rapidly read it,'' Lucid wrote in one e-mail transmission. ""I came to the last page, and the hero, who was being chased by an angry mob, escaped by stepping through a mirror. The end. Continues in Volume Two. And was there Volume Two in my book bag? No. Could I dash out to the bookstore? No. Talk about a feeling of total isolation and frustration. You would never believe that grown children could totally frustrate you with their good intentions while you were in low Earth orbit, but let me tell you, they certainly can.'' Lucid also stayed immersed in scientific work. She documented how a candle burns in space, how protein crystals grow and how several dozen quail embryos, inside their eggshells, develop in zero g.

The original Mercury Seven--Tom Wolfe's ""Right Stuff'' flyboys--wouldn't have been caught with quail eggs unless they were fried and sitting atop some hash browns. But on Lucid's first evening back on the planet, what did she want to talk about during a two-hour dinner with NASA's Leestma? Not the galvanic excitement of rocketing into space atop 7.3 million pounds of force. Not the thrill of streaking around the planet. Not the flirtation with danger 240 miles above Earth. Uh-uh. Between bites of lasagna and gulps of caffeine-free Diet Coke, she went on and on about the experiments she had run.

Call it The New Stuff. Although about half of today's astronauts are from the military, NASA is no longer the preserve of the fighter-jocks, the military studs who would race their T-38s between Canaveral and Houston and bang up their Corvettes. After the first few flights of the space shuttle, which were flown by military pilots, the crews of up to eight have included astronauts with roots in basic science rather than basic training. ""Over time, science took on more importance,'' says Thagard. A former marine fighter pilot who was accepted for astronaut training in 1978, after graduation from medical school, Thagard has one foot in the old culture of NASA and one in the new. Mission specialists have grown perfect spheres in zero g, conducted experiments on frog reproduction, taken measurements of Earth--in short, done biology, materials science, physics and chemistry experiments intended to pave the way for a permanently crewed space station, space manufacturing and long-distance spaceflights. Now the two cultures exist side by side: Lucid's replacement on Mir is John Blaha, an air force colonel and Vietnam vet. Yet Lucid, with no military experience and old enough to be a grandmother, is not only America's most senior female astronaut but the most experienced--of either sex.

A day after returning to Earth, Lucid left Canaveral aboard NASA 1 and landed at Ellington Field outside Houston. There, she and the rest of the Atlantis crew--commander Readdy, pilot Terrence Wilcutt and mission specialists Jay Apt, Tom Akers and Carl Walz--met Clinton, in town for a speech and fund-raiser. Lucid's achievement, he told a crowd of several hundred in a welcome-home ceremony on the tarmac, is ""a monument to the human spirit.'' As the president spoke, Lucid smiled on the podium behind him, a big Stars and Stripes fluttering in the stiff breeze behind her. To no one's surprise this time, either, she was still standing tall.

M.Rhea Seddon: The mission specialist and M.D. has logged more than 722 hours in space and is still with the program

Judith A. Resnik: The second Qamerican woman in space, she died in 1986's Challenger shuttle disaster. She was 36.

Anna L. Fisher: After taking a few years' leave to raise her children, she returned to the Astronaut Office this year.

Kathryn D. Sullivan: The geologist and former mission specialist is now chief scientist for NOAA in Washington, D.C.

Sally K. Ride: America's first woman in space is now a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Shannon W. Lucid: After more than six months in space, the mission specialist, pilot and mother of three is happy to be home.

As a group, America's original Mercury astronauts were made famous for possessing "the right stuff."

AGE                   Ranged from 34 to 39

GENDER All male

EDUCATION All had bachelor's of science

MILITARY SERVICE Three in the navy, three in the

air force, one in the marine corps

OCCUPATION All were service pilots or test pilots

The astronaut class of 1995 was a diverse and well-educated group with strong backgrounds in science and medicine.

AGE                   Ranged from 31 to 40

GENDER Five female, 16 male

EDUCATION One B.S., 14 M.S.s, six Ph.D.s

MILITARY SERVICE Six in the navy, five in the

air force, two in the marine corps,

eight with no service

OCCUPATION Still many pilots, but also

scientists, doctors and engineers