As a member of the InterVarsity chapter at the University of California–Berkeley in the early 1980s, Rex Walheim managed the book table in Sproul Plaza. Manning a Christian book table in the heart of the radical Berkeley campus was an “out there” activity for a clean cut engineering student also involved in ROTC. “I got all sorts of interesting people who came to talk with me,” he recalled.
Classmate Bruce Hansen, now an InterVarsity area director, remembers that Rex “stood out at Berkeley with his short hair-cut and occasional appearances in uniform. He was a fun and social guy who added zest to our community.”
Now Rex’s out there activities are about as far out as you can get: walking in space, doing repairs and installing new components for the International Space Station. During his most recent mission in February, and an earlier mission in 2002, Rex has accumulated 36 spacewalk hours in five outings.
Even though Rex graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, a commission in the U.S. Air Force, and aspirations of becoming an astronaut, his path into space included several setbacks that seemed to doom his chances.
The first setback was at the start of post-graduation pilot training, when doctors found a heart murmur that scrubbed him out of flight school. Instead of flying jets, he ended up with a desk job at a missile warning site in North Dakota.
It was not a plum assignment but, as he wrote in an article for Berkeley’s alumni magazine, he decided to make the most of it. “I enjoyed the outdoors, went on hikes in the country or skiing (when it was warm enough), and worked with the youth group of a tiny church. Most importantly, even though it seemed like a dead end, I did my job as best as I could.”
He applied to become a flight test engineer, a job that would allow him to fly without being a pilot. He failed the first time but was accepted on his second application. At another physical, doctors no longer detected a heart murmur.
“It turned out in the seven years between when I went to pilot training and I applied to the flight test school, they had better equipment to detect heart problems, and they also had different criteria,” he said. “So it all worked out in God’s way and his time.”
Rex enjoyed being a flight test engineer; in fact he was quite good at it. During one year at Edwards Air Force base, he flew in 25 different types of aircraft. But he hadn’t given up on being an astronaut. He submitted himself to a lengthy process of physical and mental tests but once again felt the frustration of failing to make the cut. But he would not give up. On the second try, 12 years ago, he was accepted into the astronaut corps.
Looking back now, he clearly sees God’s hand at work in his life. “I don’t think I would have been an astronaut if I was a pilot,” he said. “It turns out I’m a much better engineer than I am a pilot. I have the type of mind frame that does well in engineering.”
He credits his InterVarsity experience with helping to keep his faith fresh and meet the challenges in his career. He not only managed the book table for one year, he lead a small group Bible study and participated in the Fort Lauderdale beach evangelism project. He believes leading a youth group at a small Baptist church in North Dakota would’ve been too intimidating without his InterVarsity training. “It was definitely something that InterVarsity prepared me for,” he said.
And now, as an astronaut, he’s also thankful for his InterVarsity training. “Any kind of leadership training is good experience for other activities that come later,” he said. “Interpersonal relationships are some of the hardest parts about leadership. Whenever you get a chance to get better at dealing with those I think it’s helpful.”
Flying in space, and in fast jets, and working with extremely talented team members are some of the best things about being an astronaut. But the job does have its challenges.
“The amount you have to remember about the systems is daunting,” Rex said. “It’s really hard to digest all the information about how to deal with all the failures. And being able keep current on that information is pretty tough.”
Rex is thankful for InterVarsity. “It was an important part of getting a foundation in my faith and for understanding what I believe in,” he said. “It was important in forming how I approach the world and how I view things.”
And now, his view of the world is from a perspective that few others have, floating in a space suit 200 miles above the earth’s surface.