RENO - Whether talking to undergraduates at the University of Nevada, Reno or elementary school children, astronaut Mary Cleave played down Friday her accomplishments.
The moment she had spent years preparing for and which million of people would watch worldwide, was like having your chair kicked really hard followed by a brief earthquake and then a smooth ride, she said.
Her 11 days of travel was like camping, except that the crew needed additional potty training, she said.
Cleave, a small woman with pointed features whose graying hair was scraped into a neat plait, has flown two missions into space aboard the Orbiter Atlantis.
She is the seventh American woman to fly on the shuttle.
"I am a standard civil servant, except that I filled out lots more medical forms," she said.
During the second four-day mission in 1989, Cleave deployed the Magellan Venus Exploration Spacecraft.
The craft mapped Venus' surface, which had previously been impossible because the planet is shrouded in a thick cloud.
Additional work included crystal growth experiments and photographing earth.
Cleave was working on her doctorate degree at Utah State University when she said she saw an NASA advertisement looking for astronauts.
Whittled from a field of 12,000 applicants, Cleave was accepted into NASA's one-year training program at the Johnson Space Center in July 1980.
It is not as impressive as it sounds, Cleave said.
Most applicants lacked the minimum qualifications or they failed the rigorous physicals, most notably the eye examination.
Cleave was invited to Reno by UNR engineering professor V. Dean Adams as part of the engineering outreach program.
"She (Cleave) gives a young student an appreciation of going after something and getting it, especially for women," Adams said.
Cleave pitched education at every opportunity for aspiring astronauts at Libby Booth Elementary School.
"How many of you would like to ride a spaceship?" she asked.
Practically all the 100 fifth- and sixth-graders in the room shot their hands up.
"I would never have got to ride a spacecraft without my education," she said. "And it's not always fun. You have to do your homework and study hard in math and science and all those great subjects."
The younger students questioned Cleave about wrecked spacecraft, holes in the craft and sleeping on board.
Astronauts either lash themselves into sleeping bags or tie themselves down with bun gee cord to rest.
"Have you ever walked on the moon?" Jose Martinez asked.
"No. But I sure would like to," she said.
The computers monitor the craft when the the astronauts are asleep, Cleave said, in response to one question and the bathroom was used "very carefully," she said in response to another question.
With UNR's students, Cleave focused on her current NASA project: She is project manager of SeaWiFS at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
The project sends sensors into orbit that monitor changes in weather patterns.
While the project's technology and its terminology sound obscure, it provides useful insight into pinpointing the path of a hurricane or rain patterns that can determine the right crops to plant.
Cleave received her bachelor degree in biological sciences, her master's degree in microbial ecology and doctorate degree in civil and environmental engineering.
But it was while Cleave was in space taking photographs that it dawned on her the importance of learning to preserve the earth.
"When we're on the planet, we think it is so big. But when you sit on a spacecraft and go round the earth in about an hour and a half, you realize it's pretty small. So I decided to stop playing around in space and get serious about environmental engineering."