David M. Brown, 46, told the College of William and Mary's freshman class in September that the risks of spaceflight were no greater than risks taken by the founders of the school.
"Over his life, James Blair made five trips and 10 crossings of the Atlantic Ocean that were dedicated to the founding of the university. Each voyage was extremely risky," a college publication quoted Brown, a William and Mary graduate, as saying. "I think my chances of making it back are far better than were Blair's" each time he sailed.
Brown, of Arlington, Va., was a varsity gymnast at William and Mary when he got a phone call one day: Would he like to join the circus? So during the summer of 1976, he was an acrobat, tumbler, stilt walker and 7-foot unicycle rider.
"What I really learned from that, and transfers directly to what I'm doing on this crew, is kind of the team work and the safety and the staying focused, even at the end of a long day when you're tired and you're doing some things that may have some risk to them," he said.
Brown, a Navy pilot and a physician, received his undergraduate biology degree from William and Mary in 1978 and earned his medical degree from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk in 1982.
Brown joined the Navy after his medical internship and went on to fly the A-6E Intruder and FA-18 Hornet.
NASA chose him as an astronaut in 1996. A mission specialist, he helped with the scientific experiments on the shuttle Columbia. He worked the graveyard shift on Columbia's round-the-clock science mission.
Brown, 46, soared into orbit on Jan. 16 with a flag from Yorktown High in Arlington, his alma mater, that another graduate took up Mount Everest. "I'm going to get it a little bit higher up, but I won't have to walk as far to get it there," he said before his first spaceflight.
Brown had said Friday from orbit that the crew was looking forward to coming home.
"As much as we've enjoyed it up here, we're also starting to look forward to seeing all the people back on Earth that we miss and love so much," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.