For the first time in six months, astronaut Shannon Lucid Wednesday gulped fresh air, felt the warmth of the sun, and did something we take for granted: She walked.
The 53-year-old biochemist’s 188-day spaceflight aboard the Russian space station Mir was the longest by a woman and an American. She came home the way she left in March, aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. It touched down precisely on time at 8:13:15 a.m. Wednesday at the Kennedy Space center.
NASA, expecting six months of minimum gravity to leave her legs rubbery, had the option to carry Lucid off, but she insisted on walking, with a little help, about 45 minutes after landing, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin said.
“She wanted to do it under her own power,” Goldin said. He presented her a 10-pound box of red, white and blue M&M;’s wrapped in golden foil and embossed with the presidential seal, a welcome home gift from President Clinton.
The president called Lucid later in the day to congratulate her.
“You’ve given us all a great deal to be proud of and a lot of thrills, and we’re glad you’re home safe and sound,” Clinton said.
“It couldn’t have been a better experience,” she replied.
Not to be left out, Clinton’s rival, Bob Dole, issued a statement welcoming “our newest American hero” back to Earth.
Upon landing after her 75-million-mile journey, a beaming Lucid shook hands with astronaut Carl Walz, seated next to her, who helped her sit up.
“We could hear her laughing all the way up to the flight deck. I’ll tell you, she was just so tickled,” shuttle Cmdr. William Readdy said.
“She was like a space superwoman,” Walz added.
While two flight surgeons checked out the other five astronauts before they hopped out, a third focused solely on Lucid.
While it will be days before doctors know the extent of space’s effects, doctors initially reported Lucid “in really good health. There are no surprises.”
Six months of near zero-gravity had erased the wrinkles from her skin and the callouses from her feet.
“There is an acute recovery during the first few days where she gets her land legs back, so to speak,” said Dr. Roger Billica, chief of medical operations at Johnson Space Center.
Previous extended space missions suggest that it may take eight weeks for her to fully regain her balance and longer still to restore the 20 percent loss of muscle mass that has been encountered on previous missions, according to Dr. Dan Feeback, who heads the Johnson Space Center’s muscle research laboratory.