The Bear From Outer Space:
By Christin Ayers, December 4, 2002 01:31 PM
-- Cal Alum, Astronaut Walheim
Exhorts New Graduates to Aim High
BERKELEY -- Berkeley alumnus Rex Walheim, the astronaut who marked his first venture into space last spring by unfurling an enormous Cal flag outside the Atlantis space shuttle, urged graduating seniors today to persist against odds at the December Graduates Convocation.
Chancellor Robert Berdahl said he was "honored" to host keynote speaker Walheim, who graduated from Berkeley with a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1984 and retains close ties to his Bear connections.
"I loved being a student here!" Walheim told an audience of graduating students and well-wishers in Zellerbach Playhouse. He called UC Berkeley "the greatest university in the world," even pausing to celebrate Cal's recent football victory over perennial rival Stanford.
Walheim described his first mission to space on the shuttle Atlantis last spring as the achievement of his life's dream, but one that came against tremendous odds.
As a fresh-faced graduate breaking into the engineering world, Walheim said he harbored dreams of becoming an Air Force fighter pilot and eventually an astronaut. But when doctors detected a heart murmur during a physical examination, Walheim was automatically deemed ineligible to fly at extreme altitudes.
Walheim said he served a humdrum stint as a missile warnings crew commander in North Dakota for a few years before another echocardiogram revealed that his initial diagnosis had been inaccurate. He had no heart murmur and was perfectly eligible to fly.
The lesson, Walheim said, is that "you may find yourself in a job or a location that you don't want to be in, but no matter what, you have to make the best of it."
After serving as a fighter pilot, Walheim said he hoped to become an astronaut, but was discouraged by the unlikelihood of his dream.
According to the NASA Astronaut Selection Office in Houston, every year an average of 4,000 applicants compete for only 20 openings every two years.
"It is daunting to submit an astronaut application," Walheim told the graduating class. "But persistence pays off."
Walheim said he applied for a position twice. In 1994, he was rejected. Two years later, in 1996, NASA asked him to join as an astronaut.
Student Body President Jesse Gabriel said she was proud to have Walheim speaking at convocation. "It is an honor to have him with us tonight," she said. Gabriel said she most admired Walheim's dedication to Berkeley.
Walheim's most recent venture was a week-long NASA experiment in October that involved living in an undersea laboratory in the Florida Keys and conducting research with marine biologists.
Walheim told students that all of his hard work was well worth it in the end. "Eighteen years after my last all-nighter at Cal, I went into space," he told the audience. "Go Bears and God bless!"