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ASTRONAUT GLAD TO BE BACK HOME

Coming back to earth for Japan's first woman in space meant shrinking an inch, laboring to lift even a glass of water and relearning how to walk a straight line.

But after two weeks in orbit aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia, heart-surgeon-turned-astronaut Chiaki Mukai said Tuesday she is glad to be home just the same."I'm delighted to be back home after so long," she said. "This is my country."

Though men have lasted more than a year in space, Mukai is the world's female space-endurance champion, logging 14 days and nearly 18 hours on Columbia's 6.14 million-mile journey in July.

She said that within hours of her return to Earth, she lost the inch that she gained in height in the weightlessness of space. Other readjustments took several days.

"It felt like someone was pushing down on my shoulders, and even one piece of paper or glass of water felt heavy to pick up," she said. "And I couldn't walk straight or negotiate corners."

Mukai's problem now is in negotiating her way through admiring crowds. Swarms of fans turned out to greet her at the airport Monday, and a larger welcoming is expected next week, when she travels to her hometown in central Japan.

Before meeting the press Tuesday, Mukai was commended by the director of Japan's science agency, who is also a woman. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama presented her with an award for "giving the women of Japan a dream."

For Japan's own struggling space program, however, the past few weeks have been anything but the stuff dreams are made of.

When space officials tried to launch their new, domestically designed H-II rocket last month, a fuel valve went on the fritz. Try No. 2 also failed, thanks to a computer glitch.

The next launch succeeded, but a fuel valve on the multimillion dollar satellite proved faulty. The satellite is floating around the Earth in the wrong orbit, and scientists are trying to find ways to put it to use.

Mukai is the third Japanese to take part in a space flight. The first, TV reporter Toyohiro Aki-yama, flew aboard a Soviet spacecraft in 1990, and the second, Mamoru Mori, aboard the U.S. shuttle Endeavour two years ago.