July 22, 1996 12:00 PM

THE CRISIS STRUCK WITHOUT WARNING, casting still another shadow over the beleaguered U.S. space program. Last March 22, to great fanfare, biochemist Shannon W. Lucid, 53, one of NASA’s original class of women astronauts, had embarked on a mission of profound historical significance. Lifting off from Kennedy Space Center aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, she was shot to a rendezvous with the 10-year-old Russian space station Mir. There, Lucid joined two male cosmonauts for five months of research, an exercise in international cooperation unthinkable before the Cold War’s end seven years ago. On July 15, moreover, Lucid marks her 115th straight day in space—a flight longer than any American’s, outstripping astronauts in the storied line from Alan Shepard and John Glenn through Neil Armstrong and the shuttle crews.

Every measure had been taken to ensure her success. Yet as Apollo 13 fans know only too well, not everything that happens in space is completely predictable. On April 11, Lucid—a gifted scientist and a veteran of four space-shuttle flights—placed a desperate call to mission control.

She had run out of M&Ms. “We’re absolutely, totally out,” she said. “I’ve looked everywhere.”

And this from a woman whose life history reads like a collective work of. Pearl S. Buck, Sinclair Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke. Born to missionaries in China, weaned in a Japanese prison camp, raised against a Dust Bowl backdrop of Baptist tent-revival meetings, she is now hurtling at 17,500 mph through space with two Russians named Yuri—mission commander Yuri Onufriyenko, 35, and flight engineer Yuri Usachev, 38. But Lucid is often more resonant of the late Erma Bombeck—sounding every bit the suburban mother of three from Houston, where she lives with Mike Lucid, 59, her husband of 28 years.

Consider her harrowing portrait of the cramped quarters on Mir. “It’s like living in a camper in the back of your pickup with your kids … when it’s raining and no one can get out,” Lucid told reporters before the launch. At times her sense of wonder suggests a wide-eyed tourist. “Yesterday, Yuri and Yuri did a space walk,” Lucid told PEOPLE recently during an elaborate phone link between Houston and Mir. “That was just really, really neat to watch.” Asked about her research, chiefly the effects of long-term spaceflight on her body, she reports that in the near-zero gravity of Mir, where she floats weightlessly instead of walking, “the calluses have disappeared” from her feet.

Though it sounds like a cliché, calling Lucid down-to-earth is entirely accurate, say colleagues—if not quite appropriate at the moment. “What’s most important to her is just life, the real world, the big picture,” notes John Blaha, 53, who will replace Lucid on Mir in August. “Without a doubt, her husband and children are her first priorities. Being an astronaut ranks a distant third.”

Lucid communicates faithfully with her family through video feeds every two weeks, weekly audio hookups and—at her own insistence—daily e-mail, via a Russian space communication computer, which she reads on a laptop. “Who has to write their wife a letter every day?” deadpans Mike Lucid, a manager with Shell Oil, who affects bemusement at his wife’s adventures. “I don’t understand why she likes running around in a circle up there…. It’s a total mystery to me.”

Lucid’s parents, Rev. J. Oscar Wells, 80, and his wife, Myrtle, 81, are less blase. “Myrtle is scared Shannon will fall out of the sky,” says Wells, a radio evangelist. Each day, the couple meditate on the same psalm as does Lucid, who brought a Bible to Mir. “My wife draws comfort from that,” says Wells.

The Wellses have been fretting over Shannon from the start. Weeks after she was born in Shanghai in January 1943, the invading Japanese interned them in a camp, where the couple kept their infant daughter alive—and nearly starved themselves—by feeding her their own daily portions of rice. “My wife would…skim the worms off the top and mix up the powdered milk with it,” Wells says. After a hellish year in captivity, the family was freed in a prisoner exchange. They spent an interlude stateside, then returned to China—until Mao seized power in 1949 and all foreign missionaries were deported. “We pulled out on the last train,” says Wells.

In 1951 the family settled in the Oklahoma City suburb of Bethany, moving into a white bungalow where the Wellses still live. Oscar then launched a career as a circuit-riding evangelist, pitching tents in small towns across the U.S. and Latin America.

Meanwhile, young Shannon found different inspiration: a book on Robert Goddard, the father of rocketry. “She wrote an eighth-grade career paper on being a rocket scientist,” says her husband. But her teacher, he adds, scoffed that “even if there was a job like that, she wouldn’t be able to have it, because she was a girl.” Lucid nurtured other novel interests—such as a taxidermy-by-mail course, requiring that she raise a baby chick and then mount it. “By the time it came to kill the chicken and stuff it, nobody had the heart to do it,” recalls her brother Joe, 49, an Oklahoma City attorney. “So we had a pet chicken running around.”

Graduating as salutatorian of Bethany High School in 1960, Lucid soon earned a pilot’s license. She bought a rickety old Piper Clipper plane, in which she sometimes flew her father to his tent meetings. He insists she would have followed him to the pulpit but for a dogmatic technicality. “More than once,” Wells says, “I’ve heard Shannon say, ‘The Baptists wouldn’t let women preach, so I had to become an astronaut to get closer to God than my father.’ ”

Even so, she had gender barriers to break. Initially the only female chemistry student at the University of Oklahoma, Lucid went on to earn a doctorate in 1973. En route she met Mike, her boss at a part-time job at an oil company. Married in 1968, they honeymooned in Hawaii and named their first child (now 27 and a social worker) Kawai Dawn after the place—Kauai (they altered the spelling)—and time of day she was conceived. Then came daughter Shani, 26, an aerospace computer programmer, and Michael, 20, who studies wildlife biology at Texas Tech.

For as long as her family can remember, Lucid has infused them with a spirit of adventure. There were countless camping and hiking trips, and sometimes Dad and Mom would spontaneously pack the kids into her four-seater plane and take off for parts unknown. “Mostly, she was always lost,” says Kawai. Once, Lucid touched down in the middle of a secret military base somewhere in the desert of Nevada—or maybe it was Utah. “They met us at the airplane with guns,” Kawai recalls.

Her sense of direction notwithstanding, Lucid was chosen in 1978 as one of NASA’s first six women astronauts, along with Sally Ride—and Judith Resnik, who would die in the 1986 Challenger disaster. Lucid went on to make four space-shuttle nights, and her family grappled with her celebrity. At her first shuttle launch, in 1985, her daughters hid in an airport restroom to avoid a swarm of reporters. They then descended instead on 10-year-old Michael, who gloated, “I don’t have to take a bath till she gets back.”

When Lucid was picked for the Mir mission, Russian general Yuri Glazkov chauvinistically suggested she might bring a feminine touch to the operation since “women love to clean.” Her family laughs at the irony: Lucid is a surpassingly slipshod housekeeper. Nor is she a kitchen magician. “There’s stuff in the cabinets,” says Kawai. “And if she has to cook, she pulls out things that look like they’re from different food groups, mixes them together and serves them as a meal.”

Nevertheless, Yuri and Yuri, as Lucid refers to the cosmonauts, note that she shows her maternal side. After their space walks, for instance, “she helps us out and makes hot tea,” Onufriyenko says. Lucid and the Yuris pool their rations, including Jell-O and beef stew. (The April M&M shortage was relieved by a Russian supply capsule.) Spurning her phone-booth-size sleeping compartment, Lucid beds down on the floor of her equipment-filled lab, which is about as roomy as a school bus. “I generally read a bit in the evenings,” she says. “I’ve read David Copperfield.”

Since beginning her pre-mission scientific, technical and language training in Russia, she has spent nearly two years away from her family. And now, whenever a bright object traverses the night sky, the Lucids crane their necks, wondering if it’s one of Mir’s 16 daily passes around the Earth. “We’ve seen four different things go across,” Mike says with a wry grin. “Any one of them could have been her.” Though he likes to play the drolly stoic husband, it’s clear that the long separation is wearing. “I did tell her I wasn’t sure I could take another assignment of this duration,” he says. Doubtless he cringed in May when his wife announced to reporters, “The other day I said to Yuri [Onufriyenko], ‘Maybe we should just fire the engines and head off to Mars.’ ”

RICHARD JEROME

LAUREL BRUBAKER CALKINS in Houston

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