Retired United States Air Force Colonel and NASA astronaut Rex Walheim spoke about outer space, inner strength, and overcoming obstacles to reach his current position as chief of the exploration branch of NASA’s astronaut office at UT last Thursday.
When Walheim graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, he was on track to become an astronaut — until he was diagnosed with a heart murmur.
The diagnosis sidelined him for a few years, but Walheim spent this time working hard at other jobs that allowed him to gain necessary experience in engineering and flight operation.
Instead of flying space shuttles or planes, Walheim was a missile warning operations crew member at the Cavalier Air Force base. Next, he was a mechanical systems flight controller and lead operations engineer at the Johnson Space Center. In 1989, he managed a program that upgraded missile radars at the Headquarters Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs.
“The secret to success is to work hard at the job you have now,” Walheim said.
It wasn’t until 1991 that Walheim returned to his path to become an astronaut when he was selected to join the USAF Test Pilot School. Over time, medical experts had established new criteria identifying heart murmurs — and Walheim was qualified to to fly.
Walheim served as a mechanical flight controller and lead operations engineer for space shuttles at the Johnson Space Center before he selected to be a mission specialist and flight engineer in the NASA astronaut program. In 1996, he was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in March and reported to the Johnson Space Center in August where he began his training to become an astronaut, which lasted for five-and-a-half years.
“The persistence that you pursue a goal with is more important than the path you took,” Walheim said.
Over his career, Walheim logged over 566 hours in space, including 36 hours and 23 minutes of spacewalk time. He was a part of the last space shuttle mission team in 2011.
Now, Retired USAF Colonel and NASA astronaut Rex J. Walheim serves an astronaut representative in the Orion Program, in addition to being chief of the Exploration Branch of the Astronaut Office. Through his work, Walheim hopes to inspire students to pursue STEM education and career opportunities.
At the end of the talk, Walheim shared advice for students pursuing a career in the aerospace industry.
“We look at people who excel at what they do and have experience in being in uncomfortable situations such as marathons or other activities like camping,” he said. “You learn how to deal with elements like bad weather and hunger.”
Walheim stressed the importance learning to handle risks and work well with others in in a variety of environments.
“There really is a change when you bring people together in space,” said Walheim.
This event was organized by the Chemical Engineering Graduate Leadership Council in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering and is part of an annual seminar series supported by the Pirkey Centennial Lectureship.
Aerospace engineering freshman Roshan Nair said he enjoyed hearing Walheim talk about his experience as an astronaut.
“Space exploration is the reason I chose my major,” Nair said. “It was cool to see the other side of things and hear his take on how important cooperation is in space flight.”