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Preflight Interview: T.J. Creamer
03.15.10
JSC2009-E-049924: T.J. Creamer

NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, Expedition 22/23 flight engineer, attired in a Russian Sokol launch and entry suit, takes a break from training in Star City, Russia to pose for a portrait. Photo credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

Q: Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you’ve ended up as a professional space traveler. So what was it that motivated you or inspired you to want to be an astronaut?

A: It’s a wonderful question and I think all of us in this profession have our own little stories. And I have to tell you, I didn’t start out thinking that this would be where I would gravitate towards. But I will confess there was, as I look back, there’s some logical milestones in my development that lend themselves to becoming an astronaut. In elementary, intermediate and high school my instructors, my teachers, urged me into the math and sciences. You know, I had a knack; I enjoyed it. They pushed me in towards the scientific realm. I’m old enough to actually have seen Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, so there’s yet another spark. When I graduated from college I went into the military, I became an aviator, so by now we got a science passion and flying passion and the spark keeps getting a little bit bigger, and after a handful of years, when you’re in the military, the Army asks, we know you’re an aviator; what do you want to do as a secondary specialty? I said, research and development, marrying math and science and flying sounded like a good idea. When you say that you get this periodical from RD&A, Research and Development and Acquisition, magazine. The first issue I got, the inside back cover had an article that was entitled “The Typical Profile of an Army Astronaut,” and I read through that article and those little sparks all along the way, they kind of erupted into a flame, and I went, ooh, this sounds very close to what I’ve been tracking and doing, unknowingly. And so when I was teaching physics at West Point I asked if I could apply, and there we go.

Let me get you to tell us a little bit about the story from the beginning. Tell me about your growing up and your hometown.

Hometown; well, I started bouncing around with dad because dad was in the Army. And to complete that thought, I think I’ve moved 23 times to get to Houston, with his military career and my military career. Dad and mom retired and resided in the town of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and at the time was very rustic: rustic enough that when we had initially moved into the house, we still had barns in the neighborhood. Pretty rustic environment. Secluded, quiet, outside of Andrews Air Force Base and not too far away from the metropolis of [Washington,] D.C., and I went through elementary school and intermediate school in that house, and then I went to Bishop McNamara High School just outside of D.C. and then later on to Baltimore for college. Quiet is best I can say, reasonable family living too, because it was isolated enough, we were very close with neighbors, and I look fondly back on that area.

Do you have a sense of how that place and those people contributed to you being the person that you are?

The people that contributed most to who I’ve become I can name probably; all of them end up being teachers and role models, not necessarily in the neighborhood but through the school system that I went through and folks who attracted me into that region. I should also say that folks as I’ve gone through my career who I met and, and credit for my maturation, the development, in Upper Marlboro, are same folks that you meet throughout your career who mentor you. So specifically in Upper Marlboro? Not necessarily, but there were key folks in that area.

Pick up the story there. You said you finished high school there and then went to Baltimore for college?

I did. I went to Loyola College in Baltimore. My high school was Bishop McNamara, run by the Holy Cross brothers, and if there is any rivalry in the Catholic world it’s a bit of a rivalry between the Holy Cross brothers and the Jesuits, and so I had to go take a look at what the Jesuits were all about, and so I went to Loyola College.

But you were not in the Army then?

I was not in the Army; I was in ROTC at Loyola and got commissioned at graduation.

And your Army career?

Took off…

How many of those 23 stops?

You know, I’ve lost count at how many I’ve had myself as an officer, but about half is what it runs, close to 50% between dad and my travels. The Army career took me from Loyola, went initially into tanks because of the time frame that we were in. I went into the Armor Branch, and shortly thereafter got to go to flight school and become a helicopter person.

You’ve chosen a career, the end of the career now…or let me not say at “the end” of your career but the current stop…

Did you know something that I don’t know?

…the current stop, as an astronaut, is a job that we know can be dangerous. I want to know, T.J., what it is that you think we all get as a result of flying people in space that makes that risk one you think is worth taking?

I just became aware of a very touching story which will partly answer this. We have troops who are serving around the world in very dangerous environments. The danger that you’re referring to, for me and for my family, does not involved people shooting at me, and to talk about some of the product or the benefit of flying folks in space to do sometimes basic research, oftentimes applied research, can escape the population’s awareness of what’s going on. This leads me to my touching story. There are soldiers on the ground in both theaters, and the touching story is, [I] got a note that said that the soldiers were putting on one of their brothers onto the “Angel Flight,” because he didn’t make it. And at that moment, space station came across, and they actually filmed the streak for about four, five seconds, and wrote back how inspiring that is. That’s a product.

You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 22 and 23 crews. T.J.; summarize what your main responsibilities are going to be and what are the goals of your flight?

It’s a wonderfully encompassing question. From the, somewhere between four- to six-month duration because—and I say it that way since the program is still talking about changing our launch and changing our landing dates—the mission itself will be encompassing, for lack of a better term, a standard array of activities. We, of course, will be docking once we’ve launched from Baikonur; we will then be involved in getting to know the station, maintenance activities, lots of science experiments that we’ve been training for many months, a bit of a construction if everything goes right—Node 3 and Cupola will be added on to the station—and we’ll be helping with some Russian EVAs, receiving three shuttles, bunch of Progresses, a lot of sustaining life for space station type of activities. What am I looking for, what are the goals? To be quite honest with you, this is an incredible experience that I haven’t actually begun to look up and realize it’s about to happen, and I think that emotional response will occur when I get back from my next trip to Germany, when I’ll have a couple more weeks to go. The goal itself is simply to contribute as best I can to what we’re doing. I understand we are the pointy end of the bayonet, in an Army sense, but the ears, the eyes, the fingertips for the ground crews, the program, to accomplish what the national goals are for this, and I have been a member of the large organizations all my life; this is the largest so far and I’d like to be able to make that contribution successful.

For you it’s the first time that you’re going to get to go to space. What are you looking forward to the most about spending four or five, six months off the planet?

Two things, to be quite honest with you. I can remember being a kid, and I think I was feverish at the time but I remember being in bed, looking at the ceiling and going, boy, wouldn’t it be cool if I could walk on the ceiling? And this was age four, five or six. So my first answer is I’m looking forward to floating, just because you don’t do that every day. And the second thing that I’m looking forward to is actually gazing on the Earth. I mean, everyone has said such high, laudatory comments about how wonderful it is, and I would love to do that and also use that as an opportunity to take the advantage of that visible opportunity to take pictures of the Earth that we need to do for time-lapsed studies, but to simply gaze.

JSC2009-E-258622: T.J. Creamer

At the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, NASA Flight Engineer Timothy J. Creamer checks out the systems inside the Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft during a dress rehearsal at the launch site Dec. 10, 2009 in preparation for launch December 21 to the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

What is it like for an astronaut the first time he gets the news, you’re going to fly.

Pretty life-changing. Up until that point you’ve been hoping for that. Up to that point you’ve been contributing in other technical areas, you’ve been working pretty hard in the gale of the work force that we’re doing, and in order to really understand the impact of that life changing, it’s been going on for many, many years. Prior to selection to the Astronaut Office, during the process of train-up and work, it’s just been a long time and all of a sudden someone goes, your focus is going to change for the next handful of years. It’s life-changing and extremely exciting.

When you and your crewmates arrive on the station to join Jeff Williams and Max Suraev, right away there’s a planned spacewalk for Max and Oleg [Kotov]. Tell me about the spacewalk plan for your time on board.

I have really two answers for that. In terms of the U.S. EVAs, since we brought up the EVA topic, there are no planned U.S. EVAs for my duration. As far as the, the Russian EVAs, I know Oleg is looking forward to it. It is in preparation for upcoming events during our time there. Our activities associated with the Russian EVA is to support them and the ground however we can, but it’s pretty much a Russian control center, Russian EVA, Russian opportunities, where we are able to perhaps assist with comm[unication], perhaps assist them with camera views, and also we do share some of our tools and our cameras for them going outside, and so be helping them get ready for that kind of work.

On the schedule, the way it lays out right now, early next year this crew is going to be rearranging some external station components without going outside yourselves. Talk about the why and the how you do this relocations of PMA [Pressurized Mating Adapter]-3 and ESP [External Stowage Platform]-3.

PMA-3 is, is pretty easy at the moment. PMA-3 currently is on a port where we are going to put something else, and so we need to move it to another usable port, and that we can do robotically. Which leads into the next comment about what’s going there, and if everything goes as planned, and I say it that way because the program just recently underwent a huge study about whether this is the best plan or we should change the plan, is to be able to put Node 3 onto Node 1, and then on top of that to be able to put the much-looked-forward-to cupola on Node 3, and this will all be done robotically. ESP-3, its location and future use, of course, is to support stowage; it’s a stowage platform, so that when we out and do R&Rs, repairs and replacements of other—remove and replace—of items we have a place to be able to put it there in a convenient location.

Are you going to get to be at the controls of the arm for some of these operations?

I will certainly be assisting, and whether I’m actually stick-wiggling the—that’s an Army aviation term—stick-wiggling the robotic controls or helping somebody do that, it’s not quite clear yet. The likelihood is that the shuttle crews that are coming up, delivering the items, are the most currently-trained on the process and so they will be relying upon us for station awareness and supporting them in their activities, and that’s likely going to be the shuttle crew doing that.

A lot of the science research that’s being done on the International Space Station nowadays is focused on how people respond to being in that environment and how they can work there, and how they respond when they come back to a one gravity environment. Tell me about couple of the experiments in that area that you’re going to be involved with during Expedition 22 and 23.

Great question. We’re doing a lot of physical-type work, and two that come to mind immediately, it is well known that our cardiovascular system adapts and so we want to be able to measure how the heart, for instance, changes in a zero gravity environment. And a couple of the experimental approaches are to use ultrasound to look at the valve behavior, the thickness of the heart walls, both at an unstressed state as well as in a stressed state, so it gets kind of tricky. The unstressed state’s not too tricky at all because we have enough time, but the tricky part is getting the subject who I will be ultrasounding to do exercise for a couple minutes, get their heart rate up, and then get all the pictures of the heart before the heart relaxes so much that it’s no longer in its excited or agitated or fast-beating state. And what we’re trying to do is measure the blood flow, measure the characteristics of the heart now that we understand it on a one g level, what’s going on in a zero g, microgravity, level. Another interesting experiment which I’m also partaking in is the effect of diet, the kind of diet, on your body’s attempt to buffer chemically the acidity of your system. Let me explain. You can have a high animal protein content and as a result of that you end up having a more acidic system because you are, for the most part for this discussion, a closed system. Your body goes, oh, I don’t like the acidity so I’m going to buffer it by doing something clever, and leaches out the calcium, and we now get into assisted bone loss, despite the fact that we already have it because of microgravity. Or if you shift your protein source to a more plant-oriented, you’re not quite as acidic, and therefore you don’t leach calcium as much. And why is this important? Well, the longer we’re staying in orbit, the longer we’re staying in a microgravity environment on the way to Mars, this is something we would like to prevent: meaning prevent as much bone loss as possible so when you step on Mars’ surface you don’t do something damaging to your load-bearing bones.

Do you have to get in a certain kind of mind set to know that you’re going to be the subject of these experiments?

I think that one doesn’t have to change that. We understand that this is doing research on an edge, the edge of microgravity, the edge of being in orbit. The opportunities exist and we should be able to support the scientific community to find out good things about us. Besides it’s also beneficial to us: we don’t want to do bad things to ourselves, so hopefully the data will lead us in that direction.

For science work on station you’re not just subjects of the experiments, you’re operators, too.

That’s also true.

Talk about other disciplines. What other kinds of research are you going to be involved with?

Well, there’s material science. There’s also combustion studies, and if everything goes right, we’ll also be doing some rudimentary animal studies, too, if things progress in the right direction. To that end, of course, we want to provide better understanding of how solution phases behave in zero gravity. We want to be able to understand the pure process of combustion better, given different products, and as we go farther and father away from planet Earth we want to be able to provide self-stowage, self-supply, and so we’re looking at ways of bringing plants and animals along with us.

A new part of the station’s science capability is going to get started when you and your crew complete the checkout of the payload airlock in the Kibo laboratory as well as the small fine arm. Tell me about that hardware and how it will work and how you guys will be able to expand the kinds of science operations that go on.

This is pretty exciting. Both Soichi [Noguchi] and I returned not too long ago from Japan and our last stint of training there, where the instructors, to give them credit where credit is due, are working in a very tight budget environment so they actually made a to-life-scale [model] of the small fine arm out of office materials. And we firmly believe they should be putting this in a museum because the mockup that they made on their own was just wonderful. And as a result of that mockup Soichi and I practiced doing a couple of things: taking the small fine arm from its launch configuration and expanding it and getting it ready for operational configurations; putting it inside the Japanese airlock and, of course, at that point it becomes useful only if it can go outside and get picked up by the Japanese robotic arm. Once we’re able to do that, then this small fine arm has the ability to interface with items that are on the back porch, on the Exposed Facility out there, and to be able to help us change out boxes that one would need to be changing out either as an R&R, to replace something that’s broken, or to bring something back inside for our further work. The Japanese space agency and Soichi and I are extremely excited about this because it’s some really good robotic work, and really good culmination of a space agency’s plans for their module and their efforts. “Excited” is probably too soft a word; we are seriously looking forward to playing with this, to making this work.

How long a process is it to check out all the small fine arm and the airlock and get them ready to go?

If I were to tell you in contiguous hours it’s probably something on the order of a full day, but it gets broken up into several chunks. Soichi and I do the hardware working, unfolding and doing the connections, getting it ready to go outside; that in itself is a handful of hours. Once we get it outside, then the ground’s going to do some preliminary checks and make sure that everybody’s talking to each other—what I mean by that is the ground being able to command to the boxes they need to be commanding to, are the right boxes getting the power and the heating that it needs to be getting. And at that point we get to start doing a calibration of the joints, and so this all adds up in multiple segments, probably close to a full day’s worth of work.

According to the schedule you get to see your first shuttle when Endeavour arrives in February with some new modules, which you referred to a moment ago. Tell me about these new station components that are coming up on that shuttle flight.

Node 3 and, after Node 3’s attachment, cupola, are kind of exciting. First, Node 3 will add some more volume to the station, naturally. Unfortunately it’s probably coming up with enough stuff in it that we don’t have really good places to stow items on station and, as you know, one of our biggest logistics challenges is this stowage issue. And my small story digression into this: you know the little square puzzles where you slide the numbers around and you get everything in order, and there’s one space that you can use to move the squares around to get everything in order? Well, we don’t have that little space on station. But one of the nice things that we’re looking forward to for Node 3 being attached is that’s going to be the destination of the recycling systems as well as the workout equipment, the exercise equipment. Add to that the wonderful window which we’re calling cupola. I have it in my mind’s eye an almost “Star Trek” Enterprise environment with a very good view of the Earth while we’re being able to exercise. Selfishly, since the window’s going to be the newest and the cleanest and the shiniest and the least exposed to the environment, I cannot wait to take a look out this huge window for us and see what we can see on Earth.

JSC2009-E-053504: Expedition 22 crew

NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer (foreground) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi (left), both Expedition 22/23 flight engineers; along with cosmonaut Oleg Kotov (center background), Expedition 22 flight engineer and Expedition 23 commander, participate in an emergency procedure training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

You touched on this that the Tranquility, Node 3, is going to come up with some material but a lot of extra space. There’s a lot of moving things from other parts of the station into there, right?

Absolutely. Yeah, and to be fair, I’m sure that we’re going to have to move stuff out of Node 3 first: why send it up completely empty if you can send it up with stuff in it? But, yeah, there’s going to be a lot of logistics. I am about to quote someone and I think it was [General George] Patton but I’m not positively certain; tactics is for beginners, logistics is for the pros. And we are really getting to the point where managing logistics is driving the chain of how far we can progress in this. And as a result of that, Node 3 and any other addition, perhaps a permanent MPLM [multipurpose logistics module] as a closet, will really assist us in the long term in this program to help manage all this stowage issues that we’re experiencing, and that’s a challenge for the crews to help work with the ground. Node 3 comes up. Cupola comes up. We’ll be rearranging the recycling hardware in order to put it into Node 3, rearranging the exercise equipment to put it in Node 3, availing more bays that will then be available in the lab for other items that need to be stowed, so it’s a big logistics issue.

To move along the timeline and get to spring, March sometime, Jeff and Max are scheduled to go home and will leave a crew of three on board. What’s the reasoning behind this indirect crew rotation?

The reasoning is largely driven, again, by logistics at that time. Although I will tell you that there are, are discussions now about whether indirect or direct handover’s going to be the plan for that time frame. To that end, to answer your direct question, both programs, well, the station program but both the Russian side and the U.S. side, are beginning to do the research and the discussions of which is going to be better logistically. And I hit the word “logistically” on purpose because it’s going to drive where we are when.

Along in that same general area, the next shuttle is due to arrive, STS-131, the 19A assembly mission. Again what’s on the schedule for you and your crewmates when you get that shuttle visit?

It is like all shuttle visits, a lot of transfer, and at the moment in my mind’s eye for that time frame, it’s going to be assisting the shuttle crews, who have a short time, a very hurried pace, a very hectic schedule to accomplish what they need to do while they’re docked. And that comes into large discussion about how to do the logistics transfer both onto station as well as off of station as efficiently as possible. And people have been coaching us in the Office that it’s actually possible, if you do it right, to carry four bags at a time—two bags between your legs, one bag under each arm, and hopefully you don’t bump into things too hard when you go do that—in order to help assist the shuttle crews to get their mission done.

This is a supply mission rather than a major assembly flight.

Right.

You’ve got the station crew going to go back to a complement of six shortly thereafter. Does the operations change a bit then when Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko and Tracy Caldwell Dyson arrive?

Operations change a little bit. Projecting into the future I think we will have a living-on-station fluent three of us, receiving the new three and, and bringing them up to speed on the little quirks, the personalities that exist in every module, and beginning to work as an integrated crew once their fluency in living on station ramps up. And of course, to not state the overly obvious, we’ve now gone from an all-guy crew to a guy-and-gal crew, and I think things will change a little bit simply for considerations for Tracy, and we will continue to move along in the utilization, the science experiments, the maintenance of the station. And I think, if everything goes right shortly after they arrive there was a, at least there’s supposed to be, another Russian EVA, so we’ll get back into the same scenario that we had when we first arrived.

You’ve got something else that’s new coming up in the spring. You have some work to do before the first demonstration flight of the Dragon spacecraft; that’s from the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation development under this Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. Tell us a little bit about this program and about what you and your crewmates are going to be doing in, in relation to preparation to these test flights.

Excellent question. COTS is pretty exciting since it’s another vehicle that will be able to deliver, as well as take away some trash, for us, and in order for us to be able to successfully integrate and communicate with COTS, Soichi and I actually have to run some cabling behind the walls, under the decks, around, to enable the space station to be able to send commands and interact with the vehicle as it begins its rendezvous approach. Soichi and I, if everything holds to the timetable that we see now, won’t actually get to touch COTS; it’ll come by and wave. What I mean is it’s targeted in its demonstration number two, I think is what it’s called, to come and make an approach up to about ten kilometers from station. I am also under the impression that if everything is working just spiffily, wonderfully, and folks are comfortable with its behavior, it is possible that it can come up to about two-and-a-half kilometers in that same demonstration. But again, it won’t touch station. If everything goes right, I think Tracy and her crew, after we depart, will actually get an opportunity to touch COTS.

So in your time on orbit you’ve seen a major addition to the U.S. section of the space station, and then you’re getting ready for the first of a brand new kind of spacecraft that’s planned for the future. There’s also a plan to add new components to the Russian section of the station with the Mini Research Module 1, which will be delivered by a shuttle flight. Tell me about that module and what you guys in your flight are going to have to do to get the station ready to have MRM 1 attached.

The readiness for MRM 1 is the driver, I think, for that second Russian EVA that we were talking about, and this all gets into the connectivity that MRM 1 needs to have once it is docked. What do I mean, connectivity? Fluids and comm and power and telemetry backwards to the command modules, and if everything goes right, which we plan and train for it to go right, and we also plan and train for things if they don’t go right to correct them, MRM 1 will come up with a whole bunch of stuff in it, and again this becomes a logistics driver. So we have to prepare both the outside in order to receive MRM 1 and we will have to prepare the inside in order to do all the logistics offloading that MRM 1 will be coming up with, and that’s going to be a lot of work in the weeks prior to make that available.

So that’s a lot of work in assembly during your time as well as all the science work…

Absolutely.

…that you guys are going to do. This space station reached a new level when the permanent crew size was expanded to six, and your crew is going to continue that. T.J., tell me how you see human space exploration proceeding in the years beyond your flight, and how this station is contributing to that future.

We don’t know the answers of how to do all that we want to do. As a result, we have to be practicing the coordination, and the preparation, and the execution, in order to accomplish the plans for future manned spaceflight. Let me say it another way: if this were easy, a lot more people would be doing this. And it isn’t easy, both from effort levels as well as from finances, and those two aspects put together make manned space exploration an attractive proposition and project for many countries to work together. So now we’ve added financing and effort and international relations all into this very important aspect of human life, and that is exploring and going farther. To that end, we have goals: we want to find out scientifically more about the moon, we want to find out scientifically more about Mars. But there’s an engineering aspect to all of that, and if we go to Mars with the greatest chance of success, it makes good sense to be studying now what happens to our bodies, studying now the materials that we’ll be using, we could be using as we go farther away, studying now about how to preserve the health and the life of folks that go farther away so they can return, and have them be self-sustaining—recycling systems, for instance. The next step: go two-and-a-half days away to the moon, practice the engineering and the coordination, before we go to something that could be as long as a six-month travel or longer, and whose communications can be as long as 30 minutes in between transmissions and receptions, where it gets significantly more difficult, where we need to be more autonomous. So let’s practice closer, and we’re starting that now because we don’t know enough and it’s very difficult.