Astronaut Frederick Drew Gregory, the pilot on last month's successful space shuttle mission, returned home to Washington yesterday for a day-long celebration in his name.

Strangers pressed close for autographs. Relatives kissed and hugged him. Old friends recalled how dear he always was to them. And many local politicians, including Gregory's cousin, City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), used the occasion to sing the praises of Washington and say how well our astronaut had done by his native city.

"Today he is a hero to all in the District of Columbia," said Jarvis, mistress of ceremonies for yesterday's festivities, which included news conferences, a motorcade, a luncheon, and numerous presentations and speeches.

At Western Plaza, across from the District Building, marching bands struck up patriotic music and 1,500 schoolchildren cheered as the balding, square-jawed space traveler took his place on a stage of dignitaries. Joined by his mother Nora and wife Barbara, Gregory smiled and nodded as he was lionized in the sun by friends, family and city officials.

"On this day, Colonel Gregory," said Mayor Marion Barry, "we are just delighted to welcome you back home and to say we are so proud of you."

Portia Ware, Gregory's 79-year-old former Cub Scout den mother, held his arm and delighted in the chance to see "Freddie" return to his home to receive so many honors. Gregory was born 44 years ago in the old Freedmen's Hospital and grew up in Southeast.

"I am very, very, very proud to be able to stand here today and see this young fella," said Ware, who still is active with area scouting programs. "You never know what's in the heart or the life of a youngster."

Turning to Gregory, she said, "I have two other little boys who want to be astronauts just like you."

Deep in the audience, George Brown, a sixth grader at Northeast Washington's Thomas Elementary School, stood at attention as Gregory received yet another honor.

"It makes me proud to see that we blacks are finally moving up in the world," he said, adding that he wants to become a lawyer.

Next to him stood Alphonzo Liggins, the school's physical education teacher and a graduate of Armstrong High School's class of 1949. He said Gregory's late father, Francis, was his principal.

"I know his father would be highly proud, extremely proud of him today," Liggins said.

In presenting Gregory with a key to the city, Barry said it was a symbol of the city's "friendship and kinship" with a native son who has done well. In turn, Gregory presented the District with a city flag he carried into space.

"I want to tell you how proud it has been to grow up in a community such as Washington, D.C.," said Gregory, who grew up in a stable Anacostia neighborhood. "This community allowed me, as a kid, to experience everything that a person is supposed to experience in his life."

For a week ending in early May, Gregory and six other astronauts orbited the earth 110 times -- once every 90 minutes. The crew conducted a variety of low-gravity experiments almost 200 miles above the earth that Gregory said may one day lead to the development of special medicines and materials.

He said much of his next two days in Washington will be devoted to visiting D.C. public schools, including Anacostia High School, from which he graduated in 1958.

"I'm not going to go out and tell them to be astronauts," Gregory said in an interview yesterday. "I'm just trying to fill in the pie so when they make career decisions, they'll consider the entire pie instead of just a couple of slices."

Gregory said fulfilling his dream to fly above the clouds has left him with an vision he'll never forget. "I've looked in the dictionary for the words to describe it," Gregory said. He chose "awesome," then decided even "awesome" was inadequate.