NASA Detachment at Houston, Texas: Army Astronauts Lead the Way

Horne, Jeffrey C

The U.S. Army has a proud tradition of contributing to the nation's space program. In 1956, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency was established at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., to develop the Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missile. On January 31, 1958, an Army Jupiter C rocket placed Explorer I, the United States' first satellite, into orbit. Three years later, Army Mercury-Redstone rockets launched Alan Shepard and Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom on suborbital space flights. In 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established, and, two years later, the entire Army Ballistic Missile Agency was transferred to NASA to become the nucleus of the agency's space program. The Army has been on the front line of human space exploration ever since.

Since the beginning of the space shuttle program, all but two of the 12 classes or groups of astronauts have included an Army officer. Yet many soldiers are surprised when they find out that the Army has astronauts. It actually makes sense, however, for a soldier to be an astronaut. The operational experience that soldiers acquire over the years in the Army-organization, teamwork, leadership and being able to manage with limited resources-has a direct application at NASA.

The NASA detachment, which includes seven active duty Army astronauts and an administrative assistant, is located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. It is part of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC).

The astronauts are Col. Patrick Forrester, the senior Army astronaut and detachment commander, Col. Jeff Williams, Col. Nancy Currie, Lt. Col.(P) Timothy (TJ) Creamer, Lt. Col.(P) Doug Wheelock, Lt. Col. Tim Kopra and Maj. Shane Kimbrough. Lou Moss is the administrative assistant. The detachment helps the Army define its requirements for the space program and enhances the Army's use of space capabilities. Ultimately, these soldiers are Army and SMDC ambassadors to NASA.

The Army has been a key player in NASA's space shuttle program. The first Army astronaut, retired Brig. Gen. Robert Stewart, orbited the earth in February 1984 and became one of the first astronauts to maneuver untethered outside a spacecraft. The Army's success in the shuttle program, however, is just the beginning. The space shuttle and two types of Russian rockets are being used to launch and assemble the more than 100 elements that will make up the completed international space station (ISS), the largest international cooperative space effort in history. Army astronauts are playing a key role in its construction and operation.

Currie flew on the first U.S. space station assembly flight, STS-88, which launched a key module during the construction of the ISS. Using the shuttle's robotic arm, she mated the U.S.-built Unity module with the on-orbit Russian-built Zarya module. Williams and retired Army Col. Jim Voss flew on STS-101, which repaired and replenished the space station. Voss was also a member of the second expedition crew to live and work aboard the ISS. That mission, flown in 2001, lasted for about 167 days.

Retired Army Col. Bill McArthur flew on STS-92 in 2000 and conducted two space walks to continue the assembly process. Forrester flew on STS-105 in August 2001 where he conducted two space walks and operated the robotic arm to install a 15-ton Leonardo multiple-purpose logistics module. He is scheduled to return to the ISS aboard space shuttle Endeavour as part of STS-117 mission to help install two truss segments and a powerful solar array for power generation. McArthur is scheduled to live on-board the ISS for six months as part of the twelfth expedition crew. Williams is scheduled to be the first Army officer to command the ISS as part of the fourteenth expedition crew. It is clear that the Army has been, and will continue to be, instrumental in the construction and manning of the international space station and the exploration of space.

Although flying in space is the highlight of an astronaut's career, little time is actually spent in orbit. In fact, during a 10-year assignment with NASA, an astronaut will probably fly in space only three times. There is much more to being an astronaut than time spent in orbit. An astronaut's ground duties can be broken down into two major categories: training for space flight and serving as a technical expert in some portion of the space shuttle or space station programs.

The technical jobs are numerous and varied, and much like any other Army assignment, the chief of the astronaut office rotates astronauts through a variety of jobs to help broaden their experience.

Training time is coveted and always welcomed when it appears on a usually overbooked schedule. An astronaut receives training designed to maintain proficiency for space flight and usually some specific mission-task training. Examples include training on the remote manipulator system (the robotic arm on the shuttle) or training for space walks, which NASA calls EVAs or extra-vehicular activities. They also train on each of the shuttle and space station systems. Each astronaut maintains flight proficiency in the T-38N jet training aircraft. With the recent cooperative effort to build the ISS, Russian language training has become a must. In addition, astronauts are expected to maintain a high level of physical fitness in preparation for the rigors of space flight, particularly the demands of an EVA.

While Wheelock is awaiting a space flight assignment, he is assigned as a spacecraft communicator (capcom) in the mission control center in Houston. In this capacity, he works with an extensive team of ISS and space shuttle flight controllers to optimize on-orbit operations and crew time and maximize science. The capcom is the mouthpiece for the control center and the primary liaison between the crew and the ground-support teams in Houston, Huntsville and Moscow. He is also preparing to serve as the liaison for the astronaut office in Russia for a year.

Creamer serves as both the hardware integration lead for the astronaut office and the ISS support computer lead. Under that section, he is responsible for the coordinative efforts to ensure that all hardware interfaces are tested and verified and operational issues for modules not yet on orbit are incorporated into the programmatic flows and priorities. He is the architect for the current ISS onboard operational local area network.

Currie, a veteran of four space shuttle missions, assisted the space agency in the development of advanced robotic systems, especially with human-robotic system control and interfaces. One of the projects in which she was involved, Robonaut, is an advanced anthropomorphic robot developed to serve as an astronaut's assistant. This highly dexterous robot is now performing complex tasks that could previously only be carried out directly by humans under the telepresence control in the Dexterous Robotics Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center. Currie is currently the manager of the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance for the space shuttle program, where she provides direction and technical guidance for the rebuilding and restructuring of this critical facet of human spaceflight for its return to flight.

Kopra has two key jobs: the T-38 safety officer for the astronaut office and a crew support astronaut (CSA). The role of a CSA is to assist U.S. astronauts assigned as crew-members for ISS missions. Because of the complexity and duration of ISS missions-currently approximately six months-the current template requires more than two years of training. Between one-third to one-half of the training time is spent in Russia at Star City, the Gregarin Training Center, outside of Moscow. CSAs attend classes with the ISS crewmembers, represent the crew to plan the mission and operations and assist in conducting the mission while the crew is in space.

The newest Army astronaut, selected in 2004, Kimbrough is undergoing the rigorous astronaut candidate training program. This two-year program will qualify him for spaceflight on both the space shuttle and the ISS.

Another commitment for the astronauts is that of public relations. Only a small percentage of requests for their appearances can be honored. Army astronauts are well aware that the opportunity to serve in such a challenging and prestigious assignment is the result of a lot of hard work and commitment by others. As such, they feel obligated to give something back to those who made it all possible. Thus, giving back to the Army is always a top priority. Army astronauts appreciate the support provided by the Army leadership. The night before her first shuttle mission in 1993, Currie received a fax from then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan. He wrote, "Your craft will never be out of sight of an American soldier serving somewhere in the world." That is a fact they never forget.

Space is the ultimate high ground and, as recently demonstrated, the Army's soldier-astronauts are leading the way. Their goal will always be to ensure space technology is there to support our fellow soldiers, the nation and the world in this new millennium.

By Col. Jeffrey C. Horne


Col. Patrick G. Forrester

COL. JEFFREY C. HORNE is the deputy commander for Operations, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. Previously, lie was the Training and Doctrine Command system manager-Ground-based Midcourse Defense. He has had numerous air and missile defense assignments with the 82nd Airborne Division and 32nd Army Air Defense Command. Hc commanded 1st/62nd Air Defense Artillery Battalion, 25th Infantry Division. His office is located in Colorado Springs, Colo. COL. PATRICK G. FORRESTER was selected to be an astronaut in 1996 and currently commands U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command's detachment of Army astronauts in Houston, Texas. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he is a master Army aviator with experience flying more than 50 different aircraft. He has logged over 285 hours in space, including 11 hours, 45 minutes of extra-vehicular activity time. He is assigned to the crew of STS-117.

Copyright Association of the United States Army Dec 2004
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