Rex Walheim Tells His Story Aabout Shuttle Experience

Tuesday, August 23rd 2011. | Science News

When Rex Walheim graduated from San Carlos High School in 1980, NASA had yet to launch one of its shuttles into space. The Enterprise showed an airplane-like vehicle could work for space travel when it piggy-backed on top of a modified 747 airliner for testing back in 1977 and landed safely in California. Walheim always wanted to be a pilot but the space shuttle sent his vision skyward toward the stars, not to mention all the science fiction books he read as a child. In 1981, the space shuttle, officially called the Space Transportation System, took its maiden voyage as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched the Columbia into space powered by twin solid rocket boosters.

As Columbia marked American’s next venture into space, Walheim began his journey by studying mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. In pursuit of his space dreams, Walheim joined the U.S. Air Force and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1984. He worked as a missile warning operations crew commander in North Dakota before being reassigned to the Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1986. It was there he worked as a mechanical systems flight controller and was lead operations engineer for the space shuttle landing gear, brakes and emergency runway barrier —  his first experience with NASA’s pioneering program. He followed with test pilot school where he eventually served as an instructor.

His goal of becoming an astronaut, however, was dashed when doctors told him he had a heart murmur, a condition not suited for soaring into space. Years later, however, Walheim’s murmur was no longer an issue and he was selected by NASA in 1996 for two years of training and evaluation before qualifying for flight assignment as a mission specialist. On April 8, 2002, Walheim realized a lifetime of dreams by traveling to the International Space Station on the space shuttle Atlantis. He made that trip 25 years after the Enterprise made its first flight and 21 years after the Columbia first left the Earth’s atmosphere. On July 21 of this year, Atlantis landed back safely in Florida after a 12-day mission as Walheim, a retired Air Force colonel, Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialist Sandra Magnus deboarded a shuttle for the very last time.

The Atlantis mission marked the end of the shuttle era for NASA as it now looks at ways to get humans even deeper into space. The short flights to Earth’s lower orbit will now be mostly a commercial venture as NASA looks at sending astronauts back to the moon, Mars or even a distant asteroid.

Walheim, a youngster in high school when the shuttle first took flight, is now 48 years old and married with two boys who are now starting high school themselves. Walheim took three shuttle trips to the space station, spent 24 days total in space and took five space walks during his time with the shuttle. But being an astronaut is more than just flying on the shuttle; it entails scientific experiments and the occasional satellite fix, too. Astronauts also serve double duty as electricians or even plumbers.

Yesterday, the four final space shuttle astronauts gave a trip debriefing at NASA Ames in Mountain View to a packed auditorium of people who may have never traveled into space but helped make the shuttle work. Research at Ames played a key role in the development and evolution of the space shuttle program from the beginning, including the shape of the orbiter and the way the shuttles actually re-enter the atmosphere.

Walheim, Ferguson, Hurley and Magnus were greeted to a standing ovation by their co-workers yesterday before a film was shown detailing the program’s history and the final flight of the Atlantis. The Atlantis made 33 trips to space and traveled more than 120 million miles since its first voyage in 1985. Walheim made three of those trips and the final Atlantis flight was likely be the last time the San Carlos native will ever travel to space, he told the Daily Journal yesterday. From space, Walheim said, even the most conflicted places on Earth look peaceful, as he described being able to see Israel and the Middle East from the shuttle.

“You can see the beauty of creation,” he said. While NASA has retired the shuttle, space flight is not stopping. The ride will just be a little different, Hurley said. Walheim and his family now live in Houston but he calls San Carlos his hometown. The high school he graduated from no longer stands, however. San Carlos High School was Carlmont High School’s biggest rivalry, Walheim said. “We lost in football to Carlmont for 16 straight years until my senior year when we finally won,” said Walheim, who played on the team.

Winning that game was a proud moment for the young man who would eventually see many more proud moments, some on Earth and others in space. “I’m proud to be part of a country to do this, to launch a craft into space,” Walheim said. He described the Atlantis as being “magnificent, beautiful and impressive.” He will never forget the blast offs or the re-entries. “It is a strange sensation to sit in the shuttle for hours before launch. You get the sense you are in a very tall building when the rockets fire and the shaking starts. You feel like you are riding a wild animal while getting shot off the planet,” he said. “On re-entry, you are in the midst of a blast furnace with an intense orange glow, you know its hot out there.”

Life on Earth is much less stressful than being in space, he said. “Everything is amplified in space. It is a fast-paced environment where things get done quickly,” he said. Now, he said, it is time to relax.

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