Soldier Soars To NASA Heights
February 29, 2012
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Timothy "T.J." Creamer has retired from the Army. But he has not left the mission behind.
This military-officer-turned-astronaut continues to follow a path that has taken him from Army aviation to space station resident, from flying Cobra, Huey and Scout helicopters to racing into space in Russia's Soyuz capsule. The former Expedition 22/23 flight engineer and NASA science officer is best known for traveling 65 million miles around the planet while living on the International Space Station for 161 days in 2009-10 and for being the first astronaut to tweet from 250 miles above Earth.
Now Creamer, who retired last summer as a colonel with 29 years of service, is forging ahead to become NASA's first astronaut certified to take on the dual responsibilities of a payload operations director at Marshall Space Flight Center. And, hopefully, future plans will include another stint on the space station.
"I would like to fly as the commander of space station. That's what is in the plans," Creamer said. "With the annual physicals we have before and after going into space, there is a baseline understanding of our metabolism that makes us a walking experiment for NASA. John Glenn (a former Marine pilot who is also the first American to orbit the Earth, the third American in space and, later on a space flight at age 77, the oldest person to go into space) is still a walking experiment for NASA. I would like to go back and do more experiments in space."
These days, Creamer's feet are planted firmly on Earth, where he can use his combined experiences as a Soldier, astronaut and scientist to assist him in his duties as a payload operations director. Since September, he has been in training for his new position, working about 50 percent of the time at Marshall. In March, he will complete his training and work a 30-day assignment as a payloads operations director here. He will then return to Houston, with his work requiring about 30 percent of his time at Marshall.
There are about a dozen payload operations directors who lead the team at Marshall's Huntsville Operations Support Center at Redstone Arsenal to coordinate real-time science operations between astronaut crews on the space station, the Johnson Space Center in Houston and international partners around the world. With the space station manned 24/7, the directors must ensure the shifts are covered around the clock seven days a week.
For Creamer, combining his operational experience as an Army officer and astronaut with his science background makes him a good choice to work between Johnson and Marshall.
"Flight directors in Houston are in charge of control room disciplines managing current operations," Creamer said. "Now, the emphasis is on space station payload operations and the utilization of research done on the space station. The payload operations director here at Marshall coordinates the vast array of payload investigations, payload developments and payload operations on board the space station.
"There are interesting operational and cultural differences that exist between Houston and Huntsville. I would like to be a liaison between the Houston focus on astronauts, space flight and space survivability, and Huntsville's focus on payload experiments and research. I would like to be an interpreter between the space operations specialist and the research specialist."
Being an astronaut and working in support of the nation's space program wasn't even on Creamer's horizon when he went to Loyola College on an ROTC scholarship to major in chemistry. He did, though, want to follow in the footsteps of his Army-aviator father. But in 1982 there was not a direct route to aviation.
"When I entered the service, Army aviation wasn't a branch yet. There were six branches, four in combat arms, and one in signal corps and one in military intelligence. So, I chose to be an armored officer and I went to flight school that way," Creamer said. "After I got into Army aviation, I was asked what I wanted to do as a secondary career, and I chose research and development."
His Army career took him to the 1st Armored Division, where he served as a section leader, platoon leader, flight operations officer and as a personnel staff officer for the 501st Attack Helicopter Battalion. In 1987, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division as a commander of an air cavalry troop in the 17th Cavalry, and later as the personnel officer of the 82nd Aviation Brigade. Along the way, Creamer saw an article on astronaut recruiting that described the profile of a typical Army astronaut.
"I thought I fit the description. The only thing missing was brown hair and brown eyes," Creamer said.
Even his aviation experience fit into the description.
"All the good things along my career have been Army-supported and Army-provided," he said.
"Most of my time of operational flying involved coordinating with multiple units on a broad battlefront of diverse interest. As an astronaut on the space station, you deal with all kinds of organizations in helping to sustain life and in conducting experiments. The space station involves cultures of the 16 countries participating. It's a multiple, diverse environment. And even as a payload operations director, you are working with multiple partners from many different countries. So, the work I did as an Army aviator prepared me for the diversity of the space program."
But his space experience was still a few years away. Creamer attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving his master's degree in 1992, and then taught physics at the U.S. Military Academy as an assistant professor. While at West Point, Creamer applied for the astronaut corps.
"Chances were very slim that I would be accepted, and I didn't get accepted that first time," he said. "But my application raised awareness of the detachment in Houston (which falls under the Space and Missile Defense Command) that I was interested in the space program and that I would be a good choice to work in the detachment."
In 1995, Creamer's career took him to Houston, where he was a space shuttle vehicle integration test engineer, which involved working as an engineering liaison for launch and landing operations of the space shuttle. He was actively involved in the integrated tests of the systems for each orbiter for its preparations for its next flight, and directly supported eight shuttle missions as a vehicle integration test team lead. He also coordinated the information technologies for the astronaut office to aid personnel in their electronic communications at Johnson Space Center and at NASA's other centers.
In 1998, he applied again for the astronaut corps and was accepted.
"Then, I really went into an environment where I was working with multiple diverse units and organizations," he said. "During my dad's Army career and my own, I have moved 23 times and lived in 30 different countries. I had developed diversity awareness, and that became a great tool as an astronaut."
Over the years, he had also developed an operational mindset that he applied to astronaut training.
"The ability to see the path through the woods of confusing, fog-filled battlefields is a tool that I could apply to being an astronaut," Creamer said. "Persistence, focusing on a goal, being able to consider options and then choosing one, and how to use opportunities to overcome challenges were all things I could carry with me as an astronaut."
With his selection to the astronaut corps, Creamer left behind Army aviation. But he took with him the experience of an Army aviator.
"In the air cavalry, I was a member of a large aviation team. I took that experience, exposure and development and did something with it that very few are able to do," he said. "At the time, there were seven Army astronauts and today there is only a handful.
"Not only did I bring the career experience gleaned over an entire Army career, but I also bring the potential forward. This is a pathway the Army does support. It is a pathway that Army experience prepares you for. And the Army supports you to go in other directions to answer the needs of the country."
Yet, two years of astronaut training turned into four years when the Columbia shuttle accident in 2003 put astronaut flight on hold for two years.
As an astronaut waiting for his own space mission, Creamer's primary focus involved the command and control computers on Space Station, as well as the office automation support computers, and the operational Local Area Network encompassing all international partners and modules. During Expedition 3 from August-December 2001, Creamer was the crew support astronaut, serving as the primary contact for all the crew needs, coordination, planning and interactions, and as the primary representative of the crew while they were on orbit. Creamer also had assignments in hardware integration and robotics operations for the space station. In 2006, he was an aquanaut, living and working underwater for seven days in the Aquarius underwater laboratory.
Finally, on Dec. 21, 2009, Creamer launched aboard a Russian Soyuz crew capsule and docked with the space station two days later. He spent six months on the space station with Expedition 22/23 crews, working as a flight engineer and NASA science officer. He and his crewmates supported three space shuttle missions that delivered the U.S. Tranquility module and cupola, putting the finishing touches on the U.S. laboratory research facilities, and attaching the Russian Rassvet laboratory and storage module. He returned in the Soyuz capsule on June 1, 2010.
"People skills, adaptation skills, they are all key to living in a tin can for six months," Creamer said. "There were five of us on board the space station for about four months, and the camaraderie and esprit de corps was beyond anything I experienced in the Army. I looked forward to every day of working with them and supporting them."
One of the highlights of his space mission was installing the cupola window, which is a seven-sided window looking toward Earth. Creamer enjoyed looking out the windows and sharing that experience with the three crews that visited the station while he was there.
"Looking out the windows is enormously rewarding. Its mind blowing, awe inspiring, impressive, tear evoking and humbling," he said. "It was fun watching others get immersed in the view from those windows."
While on mission, Creamer and his crewmates had four major assignments. They were charged with system maintenance assembly of the cupola, thermal system, oxygen system and radiation protection system. They had to maintain physical fitness with two hours of exercise a day so that their bodies were in shape to return to Earth. They had to perform science experiments involving material sciences, biology sciences and combustion studies.
"Our last assignment was ourselves. We were the experiment. When you look at it that way, we were six months in a tin can in a multi-cultural experience and we still accomplished the mission. We worked with control centers in Houston, Russia, Japan and Germany. We were the first crew of five. And four months in, we were the first crew of six," Creamer said. "And on our day of landing, I was fine if I had to stay up there for four more months."
Creamer enjoys sharing his experiences as an Army aviator and a NASA astronaut with adults and children. He has spoken to many school groups, including his own two children's classes.
"I like to tell them my story and I share with them three key lessons," Creamer said.
"The whole idea is to be able to contribute. So the first lesson is to stay in school as long as you can to become an expert in the area you love and contribute to the greater whole. Second is to learn to operate in environments that have risk. Recognize risk, learn to mitigate risk, and be able to operate and contribute in environments that have natural risks. And, third, they need to become the best team player on their team to contribute to the greater community. With these three multipliers, you will end up with a very rich life ahead of you."