Challenger Learning Center of the San Joaquin Valley hosts Shuttle Astronaut

Steve Newvine and Rex Walheim

Challenger Learning Center of the San Joaquin Valley hosts Shuttle Astronaut

For the second consecutive year, the Challenger Learning Center at the former Castle Air Force Base put on an open house fundraiser.  The event was held June 23rd at the Castle Science and Technology Center in Atwater.  The highlight of the evening was the presentation by Astronaut Rex Walheim.

Rex Walheim flew in three space shuttle missions, including the last one in the shuttle program:  STS 135 (Space Transportation Systems 135, shuttle missions were identified in numerical order) last summer. 

He narrated a forty-five minute slide presentation about that last mission that kept an audience of about one hundred drawn to the presentation screen for the entire time he was center stage.

His speech began with a piece of information that I did not know.  Upon showing a photograph of the four-person crew prior to launch, he noted that this mission had fewer astronauts than previous missions. 

This was due to dealing with the reality that if for any reason the shuttle could not make it back from space and the astronauts were stranded at the International Space Station, it would take less time for the entire crew to one-by-one hitch a ride back to earth with the Russians.  

His slides showed some of the training he and his colleagues had to go through to prepare for the mission.  The most fascinating part of the training was the underwater space walk simulations done in a forty-foot deep swimming pool at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

His descriptions of the actual launch were thrilling, and at the same time poignant as he included a slide of his wife and two sons watching the launch from the Kennedy Space Center viewing site.  Space flight is a dangerous job, and families give up a lot when a loved one participates in a mission.

Rex found his Russian counterparts to be friendly and experienced, noting that some who participated in the program during the 1970s are still involved in missions as cosmonauts. 

Politically, he pointed out to the audience that the Russian space agency has raised the cost to America of flying aboard their spaceships in the days since the Space Shuttle has stopped flying.  

It was a great evening at the Challenger Center, but I felt especially thankful that I had a brief opportunity to talk about space with an Astronaut.   Seeing two empty seats next to Rex at one of the dining tables, my wife and I took those seats and struck up a conversation with him about a half-hour prior to this presentation. 

My wife asked him about the Obama administration’s decision to farm out astronaut space travel to private companies and the Russians. 

Rex is still in the program and towed the company line on his response.  

I shared with Rex my early experiences with the space program as a television reporter in Huntsville, Alabama in 1981. 

I covered the first three space shuttle launches for WAAY-TV, an ABC affiliate.  Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center played a key role in developing the engines and boosters that propelled the Shuttle fleet. 

I told him how I met the first and second flight crews when they returned to Earth and went to the NASA Center to thank the people who worked on the program.

I have a photograph of me reporting on the visit with the first shuttle crew of John Young and Robert Crippen in the background getting off the plane that they flew into Huntsville on that special day in 1981.  

 Rex told me that after his final shuttle flight returned to Earth last year, NASA brought in the first two shuttle astronauts, Young and Crippen, for a photograph with the last shuttle team.  Rex was as impressed by the pair as I was thirty years earlier. 

My wife pointed out to me later in the evening that I was probably among a select few who has interviewed people from the first and last shuttle missions.

I’ll take that little bit of distinction with a smile and a sense of pride.  

Steve Newvine lives in Merced.