Visiting astronaut encourages children to ‘follow your dreams’

On July 30, Homer Public Library ended its summer reading program, “A Universe of Stories,” with a special guest, NASA astronaut Rex Walheim.

Walheim spoke before a packed room of youth of all ages, their parents and others. The summer program focused on a general space theme with events that started when the school year ended in May.

Before the presentation even began, the young audience were eager to ask questions such as, “Why are you wearing that outfit?”

“This is our uniform — it’s a space suit,” Walheim said.

Walheim, a retired United States Air Force officer, started working as a NASA astronaut in 1996 and has participated in three space shuttle flights. His last was with the space shuttle Atlantis, STS-135, to the International Space Station, and the last flight of the shuttle program. He began the presentation by sharing how the crew of four began preparation, which included some ground and water time in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. His role on the 1996 flight was mission specialist and flight engineer.

Homer Youth Services Librarian Claudia Haines began the talk with a series of jokes.

“What did Mars say to Venus?” she asked.

After a casual shrug from Walheim, she provided the answer, “Give me a ring some time!”

Next: “When do astronauts eat?” Answer: “At launch time!” And then, “How do astronauts bathe?” Answer: “In a meteor shower.”

Walheim explained what it feels like to start a mission take-off.

“There’s nothing like arriving at the Kennedy Space station with all of your stuff already packed in the aircraft,” he said.

Then, he explained how the event preparation process works for the participating astronauts, often in water. He also talked about what an actual launch feels and looks like.

“The physical vibration of take-off is like an earthquake because the ship is moving so fast,” Walheim said. “The ship moves more than 100 miles an hour as soon as we get off the launch pad.”

He also talked about what an astronaut needs to do once in space and moving outside of the space craft.

“We wear retractable tethers that are about 60-feet long when we’re out of the craft,” he said. “You definitely don’t want to worry about floating away.”

Looking at Earth, “you can see for about 1,000 miles,” he said. His presentation displayed images from space of the turquoise ocean around the islands of the Bahamas, Hawaiian volcanoes and the Aurora Borealis. He also explained how to find particular international sites, particularly Egyptian pyramids.

“I’ll show you the pyramids,” he said with digital slides progressing in the background. “First you look for the Nile River and then, Cairo. Sometimes things look kind of grey but, next time you’re in space, you’ll know how to find them.”

Walheim also talked about what it is like in the interior venue of a space craft. The substance of water was a specific feature.

“Water sticks to your hands. It’s really kind of a gooey matter there,” he said, “If you let water out of a bottle it forms an almost perfect sphere.”

Weight and weightlessness were topics the audience was very receptive to.

“You have to adapt to gravity transitions,” he explained. “Physically everything feels very different. We call it ‘space adaptation’ and it takes three or four days to get used to the transition. … When you return to Earth, you feel very heavy. Gravity in outer space is not fully deficient, but the general feel of your body is very different; your spine elongates, and you grow several inches.”

Questions from the audience, mostly from youth, included “How do you know if it’s night or day? Is going to space like swimming? Have you thrown a paper airplane in space? What is your favorite planet? Do you go to space just for fun? Why do you wear orange suits? What do hurricanes look like? How do you make space stations?” And, an audience favorite, “Do you float off the potty?”

Walheim responded to each of them with clarity.

There were several other points in his talk that offered the audience some valuable and constructive social viewpoints. One was the role of companionships.

“STS-135 is a team of four. We train as a team and work as a team,” he said. “At the international space station we treat each other like our own brothers and sisters. It’s an amazing international partnership.”

After his Homer talk, Walheim visited and shared experiences with other libraries across the Kenai Peninsula, Girdwood, Anchorage, Eagle River and Wasilla. The entire event was initially inspired by Homer Youth Services Librarian Claudia Haines.

“It was my idea to invite an astronaut because we had already decided the theme for the summer program would be ‘Universe of Stories,’” Haines said. “Throughout the summer, we had some great opportunities to learn about space. Space intrigues many of us. We are curious about travel, the unknown, the science and math or the mythical.”

Haines applied for Walheim’s visit through NASA’s Astronaut Appearance Program coordinated out of Houston, Texas, that arranges for visits to inform the general public about the U.S. space program. NASA contributes national funding and supported Walheim’s visits here.

“I put a call to regional librarians to see if others were interested and began the application process in December,” Haines said. “I like to collaborate with other library staff and make connections between our communities. A combined visit also makes the whole program more affordable and more appealing to funders.”

Haines said she creates summer programs with the goal of “finding different ways to keep kids and teens inspired to read and learn. Summer programs, and the themes that guide them, offer kids and teens opportunities to dive deeper into a skill or topic they are interested in or discover something new in low-stress situations.”

Summer@HPL also fosters community, Haines said.

“I am always pleasantly surprised how many kids from different schools or peer groups participate in a program and meet someone new or find someone with similar interests who they had not connected with before. The diversity of events provides many opportunities. The library is an open and welcome space.”

Friends of the Homer Library Board Member Suzanne Haines attended another presentation Walheim gave earlier in the day, and when speaking with him post-talk asked him to share a story that touched her. Walheim talked about how he when he first decided he wanted to be an astronaut he wanted to be a pilot. In training he foiund out he had a heart murmur and couldn’t fly as a pilot. He said he found out if he got a waiver for the heart murmur, he could be an engineer in the U.S. Air Force and go to space as “a back-seater,” someone who doesn’t pilot a spaceship.

“I got the waiver but originally I didn’t get accepted into the program,” Walheim said. “I applied again, was accepted. So, what I always share with kids is follow your passions, follow your dreams. Dreams can come true if you work really hard. Perseverance and determination pays off.”

Emilie Springer is a freelance writer living in Homer.

Astronaut Rex Walheim speaks on July 31, 2019, at the Homer Public Library in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Kevin Co)

Astronaut Rex Walheim speaks on July 31, 2019, at the Homer Public Library in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Kevin Co)

Astronaut Rex Walheim does a space walk in October 2009. (Photo provided)

Astronaut Rex Walheim does a space walk in October 2009. (Photo provided)

Astronaut Rex Walheim poses for his official Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135 portrait on Feb. 11, 2011. (Photo by Bill Stafford/NASA)

Astronaut Rex Walheim poses for his official Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135 portrait on Feb. 11, 2011. (Photo by Bill Stafford/NASA)

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