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Feb 10, 2016 | Amie Steffeneicher

Cedar Falls Man Receives NASA Award for Work at TDS Automation

WATERLOO | The pin -- a sterling silver Snoopy wearing an astronaut suit and his trademark flight scarf -- is a lot smaller than you’d think.

But of course, Craig Schmeiser said, putting his pin back in its jewelry box. Snoopy had to ride on a space flight -- and NASA doesn’t like a lot of extra weight on a space flight.

And this particular Silver Snoopy went on a very long space flight.

It rode on an unmanned Orion capsule during a test flight further than any pin has traveled in decades -- because the Orion will eventually carry the first astronauts to Mars, Schmeiser said.

He knows, because his team is helping astronauts get there, even if what they do never leaves the ground.

Schmeiser, of Cedar Falls, was surprised with the SFA Silver Snoopy Award last month during a visit by astronaut and Burlington native James Kelly to TDS Automation.

“It’s like, I have no idea what is going on,” Schmeiser said of his reaction, watching the video at his Waterloo office of Kelly presenting the award to him. “And I’m really comfy sitting at the table.”

Schmeiser, like many Midwesterners, would rather talk about what he does than himself, and had told Kelly that privately as he was giving the astronaut a tour of TDS earlier that day -- having no idea he’d be the center of attention just hours later.

“But I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s pretty special,’” he said of getting the award.

TDS, part of Waverly-based Doerfer Companies, is where Schmeiser is project manager on the Wheelift. Wheelifts are transporters capable of easily carrying objects that are up to 150 tons -- things like rocket boosters used by NASA.

Schmeiser has worked for Doerfer for about 30 years. Now, Wheelifts are all Schmeiser does at the TDS site.

“When we first acquired the technology in 2005, I raised my hand and said, ‘I want to do this. It looks like fun,’” Schmeiser said.

Other companies make heavy-load transporters, he said. But those are generally air-bearing, meaning they need extremely flat surfaces to work, which generally means being unable to use them on regular factory floors or asphalt surfaces.

Schmeiser’s team figured out how to carry the same loads using wheels, a variation that includes hydraulic-suspension technology and urethane tires.

Soon, the Navy was asking about using the Wheelift in their shipyards, and nuclear plants wanted them too. But it wasn’t until 2012 that NASA came calling.

NASA, Schmeiser said, needed a way to move their rocket boosters over an asphalt surface to the docks for transport.

In the three years since, Schmeiser and his team have made four of the 75-ton-capacity Wheelifts for NASA, with a fifth one on order. Each one takes about six months to build and costs around $1 million.

At 24 feet long and with just as many tires -- each with its own hydraulic suspension -- Wheelifts could seem daunting to drive. But Schmeiser showed off the wireless steering system, which looks like an oversized controller for a remote-controlled car, and said it was “extremely easy” to operate.

“I gave the astronauts this controller, and they were driving within five minutes,” he said.

It’s a safe bet the astronauts remembered that.

That’s why Schmeiser -- out of all of NASA’s many employees and contractors -- received the Silver Snoopy, an award given by astronauts in appreciation of “contributions toward enhancing the probability of mission success,” among other reasons.

According to NASA, it’s awarded to just 1 percent of eligible recipients.

“We were all kind of blown away by it,” Schmeiser said. “It’s a team effort, obviously, but because I’m the manager, they had to give it to somebody.”

Through his humility, however, Schmeiser couldn’t help but be proud of it.

“It was a pretty big deal, though,” he said. “NASA came up here.”

Note: This story originally appeared on The Courier's website.