Rex Walheim goes from space to Colorado Boulevard

This year’s Rose Parade will include a brotherly duo unlike any other — one is an astronaut and the other a rose expert, and both will greet onlookers from the fifth float in the Tournament of Roses. Rex Walheim, 49, has five space walks under his belt and has journeyed to low earth orbit three times on space shuttle Atlantis — including its final run in July. (He once joked on Twitter: “I don’t fly in space often, but when I do, I only fly on Atlantis.”)

Lance Walheim, 59, oversees a 17-acre citrus farm outside of Visalia, and when he’s not tending to his blood oranges and mandarins, he’s writing books on how to grow roses. Of the dozens he’s published, his latest is “Roses for Dummies.”

The brothers will ride on the Bayer Advanced float called “Garden of Imagination.” It’s fitting, as the two brothers grew up tending their family’s vegetable garden in San Carlos, Calif. That was where Lance first cut his teeth as a gardener and Rex dreamed of flying planes whenever he watched them soar overhead.

Years later, on his way into space, Rex would fly 200 miles above his hometown: “I remember coming up on the West coast and I could look up at the mountains — Mount Shasta, and very prominently Mount Rainier in Seattle and in the South, Baja, California. I could see the entire width of the states.”

Flying over Africa, he’s easily spotted the arid land in the north, and with a Telephoto lens, “you can pick out the pyramids of Egypt,” he said. “About 1,000 miles in any direction you can see. It never gets old.”

The Rose Parade has a legacy of honoring astronauts. Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn and the Apollo 12 crew have all served as grand marshals. But riding on a rose float is a first for Rex. It isn’t for Lance, who can’t help his critical eye whenever he’s participated in the past. The brothers, who grew up watching the parade each year with their parents and three other siblings, will equip a float that features more than 20,000 hot pink, orange, white and gold roses shaped into a rocket and contrail.

“You wonder — are the roses going to open too soon?” said Lance, sounding concerned. “Two years ago there was so much rain. You wondered if the seeds were going to sprout.”

While the world is looking at the arrival of 2012, Rex is already focused on 2017, the year he’s slated to return to space to test an explorer vehicle designed to eventually reach the asteroids, Mars and its moons. Even in space, gardening isn’t out of the question. Astronauts have already grown wheat and lettuce up there, Rex said, although they’re still tweaking how much water is required.

“We’re learning how to build these systems so a closed environment could supply itself for years on end,” Rex said. “If we send somebody to Mars on a three-year mission, we need to understand how the life support system works.”

The agricultural experiments will continue. And if life in space ever involves roses, NASA knows it can always call on the combined expertise of Lance and Rex Walheim.

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World