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Atlantis astronaut relives last mission

January 26, 2014 - 11:15pm

NASA’s space shuttle program came to an end on July 21, 2011, when the Atlantis landed on the Kennedy Space Center’s three-mile runway. On board was Rex J. Walheim, a retired Air Force colonel and veteran space flier who has logged more than 36 days in space, including more than 36 hours in five spacewalks.

But before becoming an astronaut, Walheim was a boy who loved and was inspired by flight. Inside the Onizuka Space Center at the Kona International Airport Sunday, Walheim fondly recalled his dreams of flying. He would often watch the planes fly into the San Francisco International Airport from his home in San Carlos, Calif.

“Whatever your dream is — whether it’s becoming a doctor, lawyer or artist — it can be accomplished,” he said. “All you need is hard work and persistence.”

His hard work was evident in the impressive resume Nancy Tashima, the center’s curator, shared during the introduction of speakers at the 28th Challenger commemorative event. Walheim earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master of science in industrial engineering from the University of Houston. After college, he entered the Air Force as a second lieutenant and worked at the Cavalier Air Force Station in North Dakota, where he was a missile warning operations crew commander. In 1986, he was reassigned to the Johnson Space Center in Texas, where he worked as a mechanical systems flight controller and lead operations engineer. Later in 1996, he transferred to NASA full time and blasted into space for the first time in 2002.

His favorite orbiter is the Atlantis. He likes to joke it’s the only one he flies. All three of his space shuttle flights were aboard the Atlantis and to the International Space Station.

While all of the missions were memorable, it’s the last one most people are curious about. He was part of the last crew that made up NASA 135th and final shuttle flight. It will be years before this country sends its own crewed spacecraft up again.

Still Walheim’s presentation, “Flying In Space,” strove to excite people of all ages about space and inspire them to pursue their dreams. Like previous keynote speakers at this annual event, Walheim is helping carrying on the dream of the late astronaut Ellison Onizuka, while also honoring him and his Challenger crew members.

Born and raised in Kona, Onizuka was Hawaii’s first astronaut, and his famous 1980 “Message to Future Generations” has inspired many to pursue science and space careers, as well as other dreams. On Jan. 28, 1986, he was among the seven people aboard the Challenger who died when the space shuttle exploded during liftoff. Since then, Onizuka’s family, as well as the not-for-profit educational facility and memorial committee dedicated to his memory, have worked to keep his legacy alive.

Unlike other spaceflights, the 2011 one only had four astronauts aboard. The reason, Walheim said, was if anything went wrong they had to turn for help to the Russians and their spacecraft, known as Soyuz capsules, which only carry three astronauts.

Their mission was to move thousands of pounds of supplies, food and spare parts to the International Space Station and return to Earth.

Walheim described the July 8, 2011, launch as “exciting and as intense as preparing for the Super Bowl, but not really knowing when it would happen.” The day of the mission, there was an approximately 70 percent chance the launch would be “scrubbed” because of unfavorable weather. There was rain, but then the weather cleared up, he said.

However, that wasn’t the biggest surprise. At 31 seconds before the scheduled liftoff, the countdown clock halted, and Walheim said the problem wasn’t immediately clear.

What had happened, Walheim said, was an electronic signal indicated “the beanie cap,” which vents gas from the external fuel tank, had failed to retract the arm. But fortunately, mission controllers were able to confirm the arm had retracted by looking at video images. The countdown then began where it had stopped.

“At two minutes, you start to sort of feel like a duck in a sling shot, and you’re mentally prepared to be released,” he said. “But there wasn’t a lot of time for us to get ourselves ready again at T-minus 31 seconds, especially when considering the countdown had stopped and we had really thought we weren’t going up.”

As the space shuttle climbed with acceleration, Walheim couldn’t help but smile, saying it’s like riding the best roller coaster in the world. While in space, Walheim never tired of the view, which he displayed through various photographs taken aboard the Atlantis. Up in space, he said, it becomes even more obvious about how interconnected we are all. Even looking at war-prone areas, one doesn’t see borders; only cities.

“We’re all in this together,” he remarked of the view of Earth.

Another lesson made more obvious by the view, Walheim said, is how fragile the environment is. He discussed the thin, blue band that is the planet’s atmosphere.

“It looks so tenuous, like it could just blow off in a stiff wind.”

Besides sharing details, images and footage from the last shuttle flight, Walheim talked briefly about a new, exciting chapter in space exploration — NASA’s Orion space capsule and its commercial crew program.

Walheim said the Orion is intended for deep space trips, including possibly manned missions to Mars. NASA engineers are planning to do a test flight this year, and if all goes well, the first full-scale unmanned flight is slated for 2017. Walheim also explained how three companies — Boeing Co., SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. — are working to build private rocket ships, which NASA hopes to contract to taxi astronauts to the International Space Station.

Other featured speakers at Sunday’s event included “An Astronaut’s Legacy: The Story of Ellison S. Onizuka” author Lisa Arakaki and illustrator Mitchell Fong. Claude Onizuka also gave brief remarks in which he thanked attendees and ongoing supporters for helping remember and celebrate the heroic legacy of his brother.