Ex-astronaut relishes job as Mission Control flight director
HOUSTON (AP) – T.J. Creamer was casually flipping through a research and development magazine in the late 1980s when his hand came to a stop at the inside back cover.
The Houston Chronicle reports his eyes flitted over a list of attributes, each one sounding more familiar than the last: experience flying, exposure to other cultures and countries, and knowledge and understanding of science.
The advertisement was describing the ideal Army officer-turned-astronaut. It was describing him, Creamer realized.
“If it said brown eyes and a crook in their nose, well, that would have been me,” he said.
Creamer was about 30 years old and already had a successful career in the Army. But suddenly space was all he could think about. He became an astronaut in 1998 – the same year construction began on the International Space Station – and in 2009 he joined them, logging 163 days in space.
Rocketing out of Earth’s atmosphere would make a successful career for most. But Creamer then went on to do something no one had before.
He became a Mission Control flight director – the first astronaut to ever do so.
It’s an unusual path for someone to take. Typically, people start as flight controllers on the mission control room floor, going through years of rigorous training to understand the space station’s systems before they can run the show on the control room floor.
But Creamer’s astronaut background helps him understand the space station and the people living there in a way that other flight directors cannot, said Ed Van Cise, a flight director who has worked closely with Creamer for about six years.
“He gets it in a way that the rest of us can’t,” he said.
Creamer is committed to learning the ropes of his new job and doesn’t dwell on his past experiences to formulate how he handles things, Van Cise said. “He can draw off all those experiences, but he’s not an astronaut trying to be a flight director.”
Now 58, Creamer doesn’t intend on retiring anytime soon. In fact, he has his eyes set on a newer, redder goal.
“I want to be the first lead flight director for the first human mission to Mars,” he said.
It was the sensation of flying that first hooked Creamer as a child.
The way your ears pop. The way your stomach sinks and tumbles with each movement. The way your world expands for miles and miles the higher you rise.
Creamer was about 3 years old the first time flying overwhelmed his senses – or, at least, it’s the first time he can remember flying with his dad, Edward, an Army pilot.
“I got bitten by the flying bug, and the virus kind of stayed there,” he said.
So when the time came, Creamer joined the Army – a nod to his father’s lifelong passion. And one year after graduating from Maryland-based Loyola College with a chemistry degree in May 1982, he became an Army aviator.
By then, his love for flying was more mechanical and technological. It was the real-time operations that captivated his interests: the way the pilot had to correctly respond to situations in the blink of an eye.
He received a master’s degree in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992 and then became a physics professor at West Point.
He applied to be an astronaut later that year.
Creamer’s application, like many others, was rejected. But in 1998, after being stationed in Houston with the Army for three years, Creamer finally got his chance.
His astronaut class joined NASA shortly before space station construction began in December 1998. Though it would take the Army colonel more than a decade to reach the station, Creamer spent that time making sure it ran smoothly.
He worked on unifying the computers on the U.S. and Russian modules – so that the two could communicate – and was the crew support astronaut for the third space station mission, meaning he was the primary representative for the crew while they were living in space. He spent years refining the internet technology on orbit and even worked in robotics operations.
He finally got to strap into a spacecraft bound for low Earth orbit, where the space station flies, in 2009.
“It’s a long line” to get onto the space station, Creamer said. “But it’s a pretty good line to be in.”
The question seems like a simple one: What was it like to be on the space station?
But even after nine years of collecting his thoughts and reflecting on the six-month mission, Creamer still struggles to put the experience into words.
Seconds pass as he stares off into space. Then, slowly, a smile grows wide.
“Wonderful,” he said.
The one-word answer is so filled with emotion, not much more needs to be said. But after a minute, he continues.
He loved the camaraderie with his fellow NASA astronauts and the Russian cosmonauts on board. There were shared meals, lots of laughter and teasing: “It was wonderfully, warmly human,” he said.
He loved the views of Earth, which were “breathtaking” and “soul-poundingly beautiful.” He was on board when the cupola, a panoramic, dome-shaped control tower with windows on all sides, was installed. The first time he looked out of those windows, he cried. So did everyone else.
And of course, he loved the floating in zero gravity. He got so good at it, he said, that he once spent an entire weekend upside down.
Jeff Williams, now 60 and assistant director for Flight Crew Operations at Johnson Space Center, was on board the space station when Creamer arrived in 2009, just days before Christmas. It’s a tough time to be on the station, away from family. But Creamer came aboard in a red and green hat, Williams remembered – a typical move for the good-hearted astronaut.
Creamer was “always working at improving the environment, not just for himself but for the crew on board as well,” said Williams, whose job now is working with astronauts, airplanes and flight operations at Ellington Field. “We had a lot of fun up there.”
Creamer returned to Earth wanting to contribute to NASA’s mission in an even more tangible way. By this time, the space station had been constructed, and he had helped build it. Now he wanted to help astronauts utilize it.
For a short while, he oversaw the day-to-day operations of the payloads – the science and research sent to the station – at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. There, he became known as Astro-POD (Astronaut-payload operations director). And NASA personnel who worked with him say he left a lasting impression on the program.
When it was announced that he would be coming to Alabama in 2012, “folks were excited, yet at the same time a bit intimidated,” said Sam Digesu, NASA’s branch chief for the payload operations directors. “But when he arrived, his personality, leadership style, desire to learn, and huge ability to teach, mentor and be a team player made him a hit among everyone.”
Then in 2015, a few years after retiring from the Army, Creamer stepped onto the mission control room floor as a flight director – the first time an astronaut has ever done so.
NASA’s flight directors are in charge of keeping the astronauts and the space station safe by leading teams of controllers, researchers, engineers and support personnel at the Houston center.
If something goes wrong, they have to be able to make split-second decisions while holding someone’s life in their hands. For example, in 1970 during the Apollo 13 mission, Gene Kranz was in charge of an enormous team on the ground that helped bring the three astronauts home after an oxygen tank explosion forced them to abort their trip to the moon.
Creamer said the flight director position is a good fit for him because he gets to act as an on-the-ground representative for the astronauts aboard the space station.
“I’ve heard from crew members who have been on console that when I’m there they know their words are being heard,” he said. “They have an audience who has been there and can identify. Sometimes it’s easier for discussion purposes to be able to say, ‘That’s not the way I experienced it.’ “
Creamer isn’t sure how long he’ll stay on as a flight director. For now, he said he’s having fun. But he wouldn’t mind being around when NASA sends humans to Mars.
And since that’s being projected for the 2030s, the Army officer-turned-astronaut-turned-flight director will be around for quite a while longer.