Cleveland Native, Returns From Record Setting Space Mission

Preparing for a trip to space can be more stressful than the trip itself. With more hours in space than any other American astronaut, Carl Walz has learned to defy the gravity of discouragement.
by Shirley Tracy

Expedition 4 crew in the U.S. Laboratory. From left to right: Russian astronaut Yury Onufrienko, Dan Bursch and Carl Walz.

Clouds darkened the sky over Florida's Kennedy Space Center for the third day in a row. Would there be yet another delay in landing the space shuttle Endeavour? The crew had only enough fuel and supplies onboard for one more day of orbit. NASA decided to divert the shuttle to a backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California. On Wednesday, June 19, 2002, the shuttle landed successfully in the Mojave Desert. Its passengers, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Onufrienko, and U.S. astronauts Daniel Bursch and Ohio's own Carl Walz (Colonel, United States Air Force), finally arrived on terra firma after six-and- a-half months in orbit on the International Space Station, a new space record for American Astronauts.

"The whole process of getting to the space station and then getting through the mission took about five-and-a-half years," Walz explains to Connection Magazine. "And there were a lot of ups and downs associated with that, so I often looked to the scriptures to find strength because a lot of times it could be very frustrating."

Relaxed and soft-spoken, Walz talks candidly about his work, his family, and his faith. With all his accomplishments, he is quick to acknowledge his full reliance on God, without whose help he says he couldn't see himself completing the mission.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Carl E. Walz grew up in South Euclid. From boyhood, he was interested in space exploration, and Ohio astronauts John Glenn and Neil Armstrong made a big impression on him. Walz graduated from Brush High School in 1973, received a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from Kent State University in 1977, and earned a Master of Science degree in solid state physics from John Carroll University in 1979. He studied as a Flight Test Engineer at the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, and was selected for the astronaut program in 1990. After four missions, Col. Walz has logged more hours in space than any other American astronaut, and he and Daniel Bursch set a new U.S. space flight endurance record of 196 days.

The International Space Station is a joint effort of sixteen countries including Russia and the United States. The Expedition-Four crew launched on December 5, 2001 aboard STS-108 and docked with the ISS two days later. Walz, a flight engineer on the mission, says they had plenty of work to keep them busy, such as a number of scientific experiments, three space walks (two men each), and a combined effort with a visiting shuttle crew to add a large component to the space station.

Relaxing in the lab. Expedition 4 crew with members of the STS-110 crew enjoy a musical interlude. Carl Walz on keyboard.

There wasn't a lot of free time, but Walz says they had to exercise for two-and-a-half hours every day to keep their muscles from weakening. During this time he could do some of the things he liked to do. When using the treadmill, for example, he was able to watch videos or listen to music, which made the time more enjoyable. He says he played a lot of Christian CDs.

Music is a big part of his life. He is lead singer for a rock-n-roll band, the "Max-Q," made up of astronauts, and he is a substitute pianist at his church.

The song that touches him most is the old hymn, "Be Thou My Vision," especially the lines, "Riches I need not, nor man's empty praise, Thou mine inheritance, now and always."

"That always runs through my mind," he reflects, "and whenever I get discouraged I think of that, and it's like, well, who cares what people think? It's what God thinks that's important," Walz told Connection Magazine.

He took a small keyboard up with him. And while in flight, he taught himself to play the guitar, as one had been left by a crewmember from the previous expedition. He also took Bible software onboard. His wife would email him Bible readings for a given Sunday, and he would pull up a corresponding commentary from the Bible software program.

"I would go and play hymns on the guitar or the keyboard, and so I almost had my own little church service."

One of his favorite Bible verses is John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Walz is a dedicated family man. He and his wife Pamela have two children, a boy in high school and a girl in college. He confesses that his work on the space station, especially his being away for such a long time, was tough on all of them. His wife had to pick up the slack caused by his absence from home. Nevertheless, he says they did fine. He was glad he could communicate with them via email, and his wife sent pictures at Christmas.

The two American astronauts and their Russian commander were in space a month longer than originally planned. Because of a problem with the station's robotic arm, it became necessary to add a part. For that reason, the space shuttle mission picking them up was delayed for over three weeks to prepare for an additional space walk and to train for repairing the arm. Also, when Space Shuttle Endeavour finally dropped off the fifth crew and picked up Walz and his teammates, stormy weather in Florida forced two landing delays while the shuttle continued to orbit, waiting for the right conditions. The men were relieved when they learned they would be able to put down in California, but their joy was tempered with disappointment, for their families were waiting for them in Florida.

Walz regretted the delayed homecoming, particularly since his parents and siblings had traveled to Florida to be with him, but he points out, "On the other side, going to Edwards was good because I used to work at Edwards Air Force Base, my son was born there, and so it was kind of a neat way to end that mission."

It took all three men a couple of weeks to fully acclimate to earth's gravity after half a year of weightlessness in space. They were able to stand with assistance and actually walked off the space shuttle, although Walz describes it as "kind of a Frankenstein walk." He explains, "We had not had to command all the muscle groups to operate at the same time in concert during the mission, and so our brains weren't used to smoothly doing that." Additionally, they had to overcome the effects of space on the body's balance system. They had plenty of strength, but controlling it was rough.

Walz typically projects a positive outlook, but he admits there have been times when he was down because of delays or other for his family or himself. At those times he says he thought about Jesus and how much He suffered. "And I figured it's not that bad."

Asked what his plans are now, he says he wants to spend time at home with his family. He has a lot of catching up to do. Beyond that, he's not sure.

In spite of setbacks and delays, the fourth mission on the International Space Station was successfully completed and the work handed over to the fifth crew. Scientific research and discovery continue.

Years of training and preparation went into the project, but now Walz has finished his part. "I really saw the hand of God to get me through," he concludes. "And, of course, you do see the beauty of the Earth, too. I mean, you know, what a gorgeous creation. It's just a fantastic, wonderful gift that we've gotten."

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