No bigger than a troll doll, with a shock of unruly hair, the Anteater that hitched a ride on the space shuttle Endeavour last August returned to earth – and to UCI – in the hands of the person who got him the E-ticket ride to space: Astronaut Tracy Caldwell.

Caldwell recently presented “the great space traveler Peter” to an overflow crowd at the Beckman Center, saying, “It’s very special when you can take a piece of your personal history in a vehicle – a ship – that represents so much more than yourself, and then bring it back to a place that has impacted your life.”

She came to UCI in 1997 as a Dreyfus Environmental Postdoctoral Fellow to research atmospheric chemistry with professors Barbara Finlayson-Pitts, director of AirUCI, and John Hemminger, dean of physical sciences. A year later, she was selected as an astronaut by NASA.

“I went running through the halls of the sciences building yelling, ‘I made it, I made it!’ UCI brings back great memories for me. It’s where my career as an astronaut started.”

Shuttle crew members get a little space to stow items for official organizations, she said, “So it just seemed appropriate to take the Anteater.”

“Peter didn’t have much room to breathe. He was stuck in a little hermetically sealed bag in the station’s cargo area. His hair’s a little mussed.” (He’ll soon be displayed in AirUCI’s conference room, along with a collage of mission items and certificate of orbit presented by Caldwell.)

Caldwell, who celebrated her 38th birthday in space, said her 12-day mission “met all of my expectations – and exceeded them by far. The overwhelming feeling of looking out the (station) window … was like a religious experience. The stars were three-dimensional; they looked like ornaments hanging on a Christmas tree.”

The greatest challenge of living in a cramped zero-gravity environment?

“Managing my hair. If I had to do it all over again, I’d cut it off,” she said. “You have to adjust to the habitat. It’s trying to figure out where to put your sleeping bag or who’s going to be next to use the restroom.”

She slept with her bag tethered to the ceiling, so she wouldn’t float away while she slumbered. She also learned not to push off too hard with her feet when propelling herself around the station, to avoid “bouncing around like a pinball.”

Caldwell hopes to fly on another shuttle mission. To her, the highlight of the trip came when the crew turned off the exterior lights on the station and flight deck, giving her a spectacular view of the Earth and making her appreciate the significance of her achievement.

“The fraction of the human race that has the opportunity to see this is so infinitesimally small – it was my most memorable moment.”