A Sky-High Career

Rex Walheim waves from the payload bay. Photo courtesy of NASA Rex Walheim waves from the payload bay. (Photo by NASA.)Rex Walheim (B.S.’84 ME) has a view that’s literally out of this world. He’s gazed at Earth from 220 miles in space.

A NASA astronaut who grew up in San Carlos, California, the 45-year-old Walheim is a veteran of two shuttle missions to the International Space Station and five spacewalks. His most recent voyage, aboard the shuttle Atlantis, carried him to the space station for 12 days in February. The mission’s lead space walker, Walheim helped deliver and install a $2 billion European science laboratory known as Columbus.

“That’s my main specialty, spacewalking,” says Walheim, who spent more than 22 hours doing just that over the course of the 5.3-million-mile expedition. As glamorous as it sounds, his latest assignment read something like a “To-Do” list. Walheim and two fellow astronauts floated outside to prepare Columbus for connection to the space station; install handrails for future spacewalkers; set up two external experiments; replace a spent nitrogen tank; and retrieve a failed gyroscope. Clad in a bulky spacesuit, lugging massive equipment and coping with zero gravity, “It’s a heck of a workout. It really wipes you out,” he says. Walheim’s yearlong preparation for the walks included 170 hours in a NASA pool equipped with a mockup of his sky-high job site.

Spacewalk along the edge of the Columbus module. Photo courtesy of NASA Spacewalk along the edge of the Columbus module. (Photo by NASA.)One difference between the pool and actual conditions is, of course, the setting. As Walheim wrapped up his final spacewalk, “I really got lucky.” Turning around, he spotted the California coastline quickly approaching on the horizon. “It was one of those magnificent days when there was no fog or anything,” says Walheim, who exudes a youthful passion for his work. Soaking in the moment, he surveyed the familiar terrain of the Peninsula and such landmarks as Golden Gate Park.

Walheim has made extensive use of his engineering expertise as a mechanical systems flight controller and operations engineer at the Johnson Space Center and now as an astronaut. “When you have a good engineering background, you make sure things make sense,” explains Walheim, who also holds a master’s in industrial engineering from the University of Houston. In his current assignment, Walheim evaluates spacewalk training for astronauts, along with upgrades to spacesuits and other equipment.

With a father who flew B-17 bombers in World War II, Walheim long dreamed of becoming a pilot and of space travel. “This is today’s frontier,” he says, recalling the thrill of watching the 1969 moon landing on the family TV when he was six. He followed his older brother to UC Berkeley, where he studied engineering and served in the ROTC. An Air Force colonel, he was initially rejected from pilot training for what proved to be a misdiagnosed heart murmur. It later took two tries before he was accepted into the highly competitive astronaut program in 1996. “Persistence can be more important than the path you take,” he advised Cal graduates in a 2002 speech.

Rex Walheim by the shuttle window. Photo courtesy of NASA Rex Walheim by the shuttle window. (Photo by NASA.)Walheim, an avid fan of Cal football, calls UC Berkeley “the greatest university in the world.” He flew a Cal banner and an autographed Golden Bears football into space and has delivered the mementos to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and Coach Jeff Tedford, respectively. Walheim returns to Cal every year or so, often for speaking appearances. UC Berkeley has been well-represented in space; more than six Cal graduates, including Leroy Chiao (B.S.’83 ChemE), have become astronauts.

With the shuttle program scheduled to end in 2010, Walheim is uncertain whether he’ll fly on another mission. But the married father of two school-aged boys is grateful for the opportunities he’s had—and eager to continue supporting the space effort. As NASA shifts its focus to developing systems capable of transporting humans to the moon and eventually Mars, “I’d just like to be part of those projects,” he says.

Topics: Mechanical engineering, Alumni