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Final Space Shuttle Mission Crew Visits NASA Ames

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Photos: Final NASA Space Shuttle Launch

(Photo credit by STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

MOUNTAIN VIEW (CBS SF) — For astronaut Rex Walheim, blasting off into space for his third and last time was a lot like riding a wild animal getting shot out of the planet.

“It’s a strange sensation,” the 48-year-old Bay Area native told reporters at the NASA Ames Research Center Monday afternoon.

Walheim and his STS-135 comrades stopped by Moffett Field as part of a tour across the world to discuss their 13-day mission to the International Space Station last month, the 33rd and final flight for the Atlantis space shuttle.

The crew included mission specialist Sandra Magnus, pilot Doug Hurley, and Cmdr. Chris Ferguson.

>>Photos: Final NASA Space Shuttle Launch

The purpose of the mission, which lasted from July 8 through July 21, was to deliver supplies, fly a system to study robotic spacecraft refueling, and return a failed ammonia pump module to help NASA improve pump designs for future systems.

The veteran astronaut said he would now focus on developing new systems at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where he resides with his wife and sons Jeffrey and Alex.

“The cheaper we can get it, the safer we can get it, the more people will get to see what I’ve seen – which is amazing,” Walheim said.

Walheim’s love of space flight was born in his home in San Carlos watching airplanes soar above his backyard on their way to and from the San Francisco International Airport. As a child, he read books about the space program and then one day in the sixth grade, his love became cemented during a field trip to the NASA Ames Research Center.

Walheim’s passion grew and was nurtured in the classrooms at the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated in 1980 with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. Today, he remains such an avid alumnus that he took his Cal football jersey, rugby shirt and hat on the latest mission.

Even after logging in more than 24 days in space, including five spacewalks, during his tenure as a mission specialist, Walheim said his travels still leave him in amazement.

“You’d be surprised when you come back down and think ‘did I really do that?’ It’s such sensory overload.”

He said though the mission was a busy one and his memories of space tend to fade over time, on this final mission he made sure to take the rare moments of free time to gaze down at the California coast.

“I just sat there and looked at it and thought, ‘I’m going to remember this,’” Walheim said.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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