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Legendary astronaut still finds herself star-struck

Story Highlights

• Legendary astronaut Shannon Lucid continues to work on shuttle missions
• Member of the first group of female astronauts accepted by NASA
• Holds the record for the most flight hours in orbit by any non-Russian
• Recently traveled with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to China
By Peggy Mihelich
CNN
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(CNN) -- During the last space shuttle mission to the international space station, television cameras panned around the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control and landed on the CAPCOM desk -- the relay station between astronauts on the ground and those circling in orbit.

There sat astronaut Shannon Lucid, diligently taking notes and talking Discovery astronauts through procedure after procedure. At 64, Lucid continues to work as an active member of the NASA astronaut corps and loves every minute of it.

Lucid's career at NASA is the stuff of legends -- she was in the first class of NASA's female astronauts, flew on five shuttle flights and spent six months on Russia's Mir space lab. She's known for her zest for life, steely determination and resourcefulness. (Photo gallery: Explore Lucid's career)

"The very thought of exploring space I just find really exciting. And I figure I'll work as long as I'm happy to wake up every day and think 'Wow, I'm so glad to be going to work,'" Lucid said.

Lucid's interest in space began as a young girl with a curiosity about rockets and science fiction.

"I'd read about Robert Goddard [the father of modern rocket propulsion] and his rockets out in New Mexico, and I had read a lot of science fiction. And I thought it would be so cool to go up and explore the universe."

Lucid was 14 years old when the space age began with the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. When the U.S. announced it would soon have its own manned space program, it sent her spirits soaring.

She was dumbfounded to find out the first American astronauts were all male.

"I thought, 'Wow, how did this happen?' "

Female astronauts

America of the 1950s and '60s provided few opportunities for women in search of careers -- even fewer for women looking for jobs in science. In 1963, just weeks away from getting her Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from the University of Oklahoma, Lucid recalled talking with her professor about how to get a job.

He stared back her, stunned. "He said to me, 'A job? You plan on working? But you're a girl.' "

"People just wouldn't even talk to you if you were a female. But when the law changed [the Civil Rights Act of 1964], and it said you can't discriminate, then things started to open up," she said.

Lucid found work in academia as a research biochemist.

"It just never occurred to her that there were things women didn't do," said astronaut Ellen Baker. Baker has worked with Lucid for 20 years, flying together on the shuttle Atlantis in 1989.

"She is probably the most positive and optimistic person I know, who basically thinks nothing is impossible and really has proven that in her life," Baker said.

Lucid joined NASA in 1978 as a member of the first astronaut class to accept females. The group of women also included Margaret Seddon, Kathryn Sullivan, Judith Resnik, Sally Ride, and Anna Fisher.

"We came here, we were assigned jobs, and we just worked and tried to do the best that we could," Lucid said, describing her beginnings with NASA.

What they did was prove to NASA and the world that female astronauts could perform the same as male astronauts.

"The difficult part has always been waiting to be assigned to a flight." Her hard work and persistence were rewarded; she completed 4 shuttle flights between 1985 and 1993.

Mir

In 1996, NASA was in the early years of its partnership with the Russian space agency. As a way to build on their relationship and learn about living long-term in space, NASA sent astronauts to live and work for months on Russia's orbiting space lab Mir.

The assignment wasn't appealing when compared to the shuttle flights of the day. Astronauts had to learn Russian, leave home and train in Star City, Russia, for a year. Once on Mir, they would spend months conducting science experiments with two non-English speaking cosmonauts.

"I was wondering what it would be like to spend a long period of time in space. I told everybody I wanted to do it, and they couldn't find anybody else who had volunteered. So they said: 'Well OK, go do it,' " Lucid said.

Her training was intense -- and entirely in Russian.

"It was as if you walked around all day with glasses on that were out of focus, and you saw the whole world and it was out of focus, and you were always trying to figure out what it was you were looking at. That's what it felt like," she said of training in a language she didn't speak.

On March 23, 1996, she arrived at Mir and met her roommates: Cosmonauts Yury Usachev and Yuri Onufriyenko.

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Lucid said her Mir crewmates Yury Usachev, left and Yuri Onufriyenko made all the difference. "They are just wonderful people."

"They were really wonderful to live and work with," she said.

"Yury Usachev, was the flight engineer. He was an engineer by training, and he had a philosophical bent. He liked to talk and philosophize. Yuri Onufriyenko was the commander, a military pilot. He was born in the Ukraine, and he was more quiet, but he liked to make sure everything was done and done right."

Lucid kept busy with science experiments and assisted the crew with multiple spacewalks. In her spare time she read and looked out the big window at the Earth, keeping in contact with her family and friends via a video link up and HAM radio. (Watch as Lucid details her life on Mir Video)

Her original stay was supposed to last four months, but a shuttle delay extended her mission by six weeks.

That extra time put her in the record book. She traveled 75.2 million miles in 188 days, four hours. She holds the U.S. single mission space flight endurance record on Mir, has the most flight hours in orbit by any woman in the world and the most flight hours in orbit by any non-Russian.

For her Mir achievement, President Bill Clinton awarded Lucid the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the only women to receive this award. Russian President Boris Yeltsin awarded her the Order of Friendship Medal, the highest Russian award that can be given to a noncitizen.

"Shannon is a true pioneer in space exploration, and has been an inspiration to me and countless other women in the United States and around the world," said current NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale.

"We are proud to call a person of such outstanding achievement one of our own here at NASA."

For Lucid, the Mir experience was "just awesome." An opportunity she is very grateful to have been given. "I had a really good time thanks to Yuri and Yury."

NASA's test of endurance

Since the Mir mission, Lucid has served in an astronaut support role for shuttle flights.

She worked Mission Control during NASA's last shuttle mission in December and recently traveled with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to China where they toured facilities where the Chinese are building spacecraft.

Both China and the U.S. have ambitious lunar missions for the next decade: NASA hopes to land people on the moon again by 2020, and China plans to establish an orbiting space lab by 2015.

Lucid fully understands the difficult task ahead for the space agency.

"Going to the moon was an awesome feat. Sometimes when something gets relegated to the history books it loses its wonder, and people forget just what an awesome thing it really was to do that and what an awesome thing it will be to have the ability to do again."

NASA has a good plan laid out and "will go step by step to get there," she said. "This is a long-term project. And we're in this for the long haul."

A project that will no doubt test everyone's endurance. And as long as she's needed she'll be there to help out.

"I just really enjoy working. ... I came from the generation where women didn't have many options. That changed after I got out of school. I still feel in awe that I even have a job. It's like a miracle every day."


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At 64 Shannon Lucid loves being an astronaut. "I still feel in awe that I even have a job. It's like a miracle everyday," Lucid said.

FACT BOX

SHANNON LUCID FACT FILE:

Born: January 14, 1943, in Shanghai, China

Family: Married to Michael F. Lucid, she has two daughters and a son

Education: B.S. in chemistry, M.S. and Ph.D. in philosophy and biochemistry

Flight experience: Commercial pilot; logged 5,354 hours (223 days) in space

Shuttle flights: STS-51G, STS-34, STS-43, STS-58, STS-76/79 (Mir drop-off and pickup)

Mir: 188 days in orbit

Records: U.S. single mission space flight endurance record on Mir. Most flight hours in orbit by any woman in the world. Most flight hours in orbit by any non-Russian.

Awards: Congressional Space Medal of Honor (U.S.) Order of Friendship Medal (Russia)

Source: NASA

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