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Lucid Lands on Both Feet After Record-Setting Flight

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

Once she returns today to NASA’s Johnson Space Center headquarters in Houston, NASA scientists will put her through a series of additional tests to gauge the effects of her prolonged stay in zero gravity. They expect to find some loss of calcium in her bones and perhaps some lethargy.

Of particular interest will be Lucid’s weight, normally 150 pounds. Her predecessor aboard Mir, Norman Thagard, a 52-year-old physician, lost 18 pounds during his four-month stay last year and on his return complained of the food, boredom and cultural isolation.

By all indications, Lucid was better prepared to spend more than half a year circling 240 miles above the Earth while confined to a cluttered, tin-can apartment with a reputation for foul air. Not only did she express a fondness for some sorts of Russian fare, including borscht, but she was well-supplied with American snacks, books and some knowledge of the Russian language, which she and Blaha studied during a year of training at Russia’s Star City cosmonaut center.

She stayed in touch with her family via daily computer e-mail messages and through frequent televised telephone conversations.

Lucid remained in good spirits throughout her stay aboard Mir. “Everybody loves her,” said Gen. Yuri Glazkov, a Russian training center official who before Lucid’s flight expressed his expectation that because she was a woman, Lucid would help keep Mir clean.

It is not clear how much housekeeping Lucid did in space. She did, however, carry out a full range of scientific experiments, including some involving burning candles and growing plants.

Nonetheless, for several days Lucid has been dropping none-too-subtle hints that she was definitely ready to come home. Last week, after Atlantis finally took off to pick her up, Lucid commented: “You can be assured I am not going to be on the wrong side of the hatch when they close it.”

She later remarked that, on the night last week before Atlantis lifted off, she was so excited that she could hardly sleep. “It was sort of like Christmas Eve when you’re a kid, you know what I mean?” she said.

Mission Control in Houston appreciated her impatience. The next day workers there entertained Atlantis commander William F. Readdy and his crew with a recording of the 1965 hit, “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass. “A message from Shannon,” Mission Control called it.

After transferring her gear into Atlantis, Readdy said, “Shannon filled the orbiter with laughs. There was hardly a moment that went by when she wasn’t laughing about something. She’s a real trouper.”

The nine-day mission to bring Lucid home marked the 17th flight of Atlantis and the 79th flight of the shuttle program. Along with fetching Lucid, the Atlantis also resupplied Mir with equipment and fresh foodstuffs. The shuttle also brought back items no longer needed or that the more-cramped Russian Soyuz transporter could not carry. For example, Atlantis carried to Earth an Orion extravehicular spacesuit that would not fit into the Russian craft.

Born in Shanghai, China, where her father was a Baptist preacher, Lucid considers Bethany, Okla., her home, though she and her husband maintain an apartment in Houston. She holds both a bachelor of science degree and PhD in chemistry from the University of Oklahoma. Her husband is a petrochemist in Indianapolis.

Her father said he looks forward to his daughter coming soon to Bethany, where, he said, “she’s going to repaint my bedroom and help carpet the house.”


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