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UCI astronaut takes a giant leap

Researcher describes her 12-day mission into space to work on International Space Station. A special mascot kept her company.

October 17, 2007|By Joseph Serna

Only an infinitesimally small fraction of people in history have been in space. And if Tracy Caldwell had her way she would have brought plenty of friends up with her on the space shuttle, but she only had room for UC Irvine mascot Peter the Anteater.

“You want to take everyone with you but you can’t, so you take an anteater,” the former UCI researcher and astronaut joked.

“It’s very special when you take pieces of your own personal history up in a ship that means so much more than you personally,” Caldwell said Wednesday at UCI, where she regaled a captivated audience with stories of her 12-day mission into space.

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Caldwell researched atmospheric chemistry at UCI in 1997 before being accepted into the NASA astronaut program a year later. In August of this year, she flew into space as a member of the space shuttle Endeavor crew.

Every astronaut was given a small bag where they could store personal effects to take up to space with them. Caldwell took her 3-inch tall plush toy, Peter the Anteater, a token from her days at AirUCI, a research team that studies atmospheric chemistry.

With a certificate verifying Peter’s time in space — he orbited 5.3 million miles 216 miles above the earth at 17,500 mph — Caldwell returned the aeronautical anteater to UCI administrators on Wednesday.

After Peter’s 15 minutes of fame, Caldwell entertained roughly 200 people with her adventure.

She logged more than 305 hours in space. During her mission, the crew successfully added an external spare parts platform and gyroscope to the International Space Station and brought back some 4,000 pounds of hardware and obsolete equipment.

But it was Caldwell’s details about life in space that set her UCI visit apart from what you hear on TV.

Her biggest personal challenge up there, she said, was managing her hair. NASA’s training can prepare you for the technical aspects of space, but little habits as simple as sleeping can prove a challenge up there, she said.

The body is used to the pressure of a mattress, the head to the feeling of a pillow; in space there’s neither.

Caldwell was emotional when she recalled the view from the shuttle window, seeing a view of earth few have been privy to.

“The overwhelming feeling of looking out the window, it was almost a religious experience,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “If you didn’t believe in God before, you’re sure there is someone higher creating all this after.”


JOSEPH SERNA may be reached at (714) 966-4619 or at joseph.serna@latimes.com.

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