America's last space shuttle astronauts visited NASA Ames on Monday, with gratitude and goodbyes, to a place that helped make the historic trip possible.

"We want to thank you," Atlantis Mission Specialist and San Carlos native Rex Walheim told Ames employees and their families, who crowded into the campus auditorium for a glimpse of the crew.

"We couldn't have come home without Ames," he said, because its scientists made the heat-shielding system that protected the orbiter, and its crew, from igniting during re-entry.

"And you inspire the next generation," said Walheim, 48. He traces his dreams of becoming an astronaut to a boyhood "Visitors Day" at Ames where he watched the explosive takeoff of a high-altitude U-2 spy plane.

The visit by the four-member team -- Walheim, Commander Christopher Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialist Sandra Magnus -- was one of several stops along their poignant post-flight tour to NASA centers. Their 13-day flight in July brought the illustrious space shuttle program to a close.

"It was a thrilling occasion to have the final space shuttle crew come visit us," said Michael Mewhinney, spokesman of NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field. NASA Ames' role made it even more special, he said, "It's gratifying to hear the mission went so well, and everything turned out safely."

But Monday was dubbed "the Rex Walheim homecoming tour," joked Ferguson, because so many of his fans were in attendance. The team also met with journalists before the presentation.


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"The shuttle is a beautiful vehicle," said Walheim, a UC Berkeley grad who took his Cal football jersey, rugby jersey and baseball cap into space. "It's hard to say goodbye to that."

Describing the launch, he said, "When you're sitting on the launchpad, it's like you're in a very tall building. Then, six seconds before the launch, it just starts to shake ... It's like you're riding a wild animal."

It was his third spaceflight. He holds tight to the memories of one busy spacewalk when he took a quick glance down. "It was the end, and it was my last one. I saw the whole coast of California, on one of those beautiful clear days, with no fog or anything," he recalled. "I thought: 'I'm always going to remember this.' "

At higher altitudes, the crew was awed by a tiny thin ribbon of blue that enveloped Earth -- its atmosphere. "You can see that band of the atmosphere on the edge of the earth and it is so thin, so fragile," he said. "And some of the places that are in conflict the most in the world look so peaceful."

Re-entry into Earth's atmosphere was an anxious time. "You could see the glow around you ... you're in a middle of a blast furnace."

Reflecting on his childhood influences, he recounted how he fell in love with flying while watching daily air traffic over San Francisco International Airport, near the San Carlos hills where he grew up. "I'd be in the backyard ... looking at the airplanes fly over and thinking, 'Oh boy, that would be really neat to do someday.' "

Raised in a devout family that attended Redwood City's Peninsula Covenant Church, space travel has only strengthened his spirituality.

"I believe that all truth is God's truth," he said. "I don't think there is anything to fear from science. As we find out how things work -- that is the way that God made them work. That is how I approach things."

San Carlos teachers instilled a love of learning and work ethic, but UC Berkeley's rigorous mechanical engineering program gave him the scientific foundation he needed to embark on his path.

"Cal opened up more doors than almost anything else I've done," he said. "People take you seriously."

He joined the Air Force in 1984 to be a pilot and was stunned when doctors discovered a heart murmur that at the time dashed his hopes of flying.

Disappointed, he went into Air Force Space Command to become a missile warning operations crew commander. A second test, years later, found no murmur at all. ("Different criteria, better equipment," he shrugged.)

The road to space also took him two tries; his application to NASA wasn't picked up the first time around. But in March 1996, he got the call.

His advice to youngsters: "Don't take 'no' for an answer," he said. "There were a lot of detours."

"I think it worked out better this way -- because I am a much better engineer than I am a pilot."

After the tour, he's headed back to Houston, where he lives with his wife and two sons. There, he'll work on new rockets that will explore deeper space.

He'll likely never go back into space. It will be up to future generations of astronauts to explore places like Mars and beyond.

But his space travel left its mark on the scientist's soul.

"It gave me a renewed understanding," he said, "and appreciation of the beauty of the creation."

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 408-920-5565.