On Sept. 25, 2013, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Mike Hopkins ’92 ENG sits aboard the three-person Russian Soyuz spacecraft, awaiting the culmination of a lifelong dream.
Joined in the cockpit by Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy, Hopkins has his knees pressed high, close to his chest. He’s not worried that the 25-foot launch vehicle’s design has been in constant use for almost 40 years—he views that as proof of its reliability. He remains unfazed—but definitely excited—as he prepares to enter low-Earth orbit and spend the next 166 days aboard the International Space Station.
The launch is brief—8 minutes, 53 seconds from liftoff until the Soyuz is in orbit—followed by a six-hour wait to rendezvous with the station.
Hopkins is patient. After all, he’s been anticipating this moment all of his life.
Aboard and abroad
The initial 18 to 24 hours on the ISS are tough. The entire first day Hopkins is up there, he feels like he’s falling, as if he’d grabbed hold of a bar in the rafters of a warehouse in the NASA Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Houston’s Johnson Space Center and then let go.
“It wasn’t like in a dream, where you wake up and that feeling’s gone,” Hopkins says. “It just stayed with me. You eventually get used to it.”
Sure enough, micro-gravity starts to feel perfectly normal. Concepts that seemed impossibly abstract suddenly make sense—such as there’s no up or down in space. Two weeks into his time on the station, he’s working on an experiment and has to change a microscope lens. Facing the Fluids Integrated Rack, Hopkins starts twisting it, but the angle is awkward. Suddenly, on the communication system, he hears one of the experienced payload communications managers from Mission Control in Huntsville, Ala.
“Hey, Mike, it might be a little easier if you just flipped upside down,” she instructs him, and Hopkins recognizes that she’s right. He turns himself upside down and changes out the lens instantly.
While onboard experiments are intriguing, the marquee moment for many astronauts is the spacewalk. That’s when they’re in the suit with the big bubble helmet, staring out at the vacuum of space, just a tether and a carabiner keeping them bound to reality. When Hopkins returns to Earth, that’s what people will want to hear about.
The first time Hopkins gets called on to perform an unscheduled spacewalk or EVA (extravehicular activity in NASA-speak) to correct a faulty pump on the space station’s exterior, it’s Dec. 20, the day before he’ll be venturing out. Suddenly, Hopkins has the rest of the night ahead of him to try to relax. So he starts falling back on routines that he developed as a member of the Fighting Illini football team.
“There’s a [sequence] of preparation that goes into getting ready for a game as well as getting ready for an EVA,” Hopkins says.
Part of his spacewalk preparation had taken place in Houston at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, a large pool that measures 202 feet long and 40 feet deep and contains 6.2 million gallons of water. But executing a spacewalk in the NBL isn’t the same as doing one in outer space. The next day, as he exits the ISS hatch, Hopkins immediately feels vulnerable upon entering the incredibly harsh environment. When Hopkins looks through the lens of his helmet, though, that feeling is replaced by awe—there’s the world. He’s seeing it in a way that very few people have ever been able to.
Then adrenaline takes over, the training kicks in. Hopkins looks out at the vastness of space and gets focused. There’s the ring he’s supposed to attach his safety tether on. There are the handrails Hopkins can crawl along. He just starts doing the spacewalk, relying on his preparation each step of the way. At the same time, Hopkins is cognitive of the fact that he doesn’t want to lose a tool, doesn’t want to lose himself, so part of his focus concentrates on double-checking hooks and ensuring that everything is tethered properly. It’s tricky executing his tasks; his bulky spacesuit and thick gloves hamper his arm and finger movements. It’s stressful, but amazing, and by the end of it, Hopkins is exhausted and relieved.
There’s nothing like the feeling Hopkins has when he finally returns to the spacecraft’s interior, five-and-a-half hours later. It’s a mixture of accomplishment and relief—he didn’t float away, he completed his mission, and he can finally relax. He starts recognizing other things now—like he hasn’t eaten. He readies his suit for the next day, then dines. He sleeps very well that night.
Just an ordinary day aboard the International Space Station—but it’s everything he spent his whole life hoping for.
‘A dream time to be at Illinois’
Mike Hopkins, who grew up on a farm outside of Richland, Mo., knew he wanted to be an astronaut while attending School of the Osage high school in Lake of the Ozarks. Hopkins viewed live footage of the shuttle launches and was smitten.
“That’s really what piqued my interest,” he recalls, “watching these shuttles launch or seeing the astronauts up in space launching satellites, going on spacewalks, doing [experiments].” As someone with a head for math and science, he dreamed of joining them.
After high school, Hopkins decided to attend the University of Illinois for its aerospace engineering program. He signed up for Air Force ROTC, pledged Pi Kappa Alpha and, after seeing a former high school teammate walk on to the Nebraska football team, decided to try the same thing at Illinois.
Soon Hopkins found himself playing quarterback on the scout team, backing up Illinois starting quarterback and future NFL player Jeff George ’91 LAS, before earning a spot on special teams. With football, ROTC and the fraternity, Hopkins—who likes to be busy—says that it was “kind of a dream time to be at Illinois.”
“I’m in one of the best engineering schools in the nation. I’m getting to play [Big Ten] football. … I’m doing Air Force ROTC, so I’m seeing a side of things that other students on campus don’t get,” he says. “I’m in a fraternity, which was great from all aspects—from a social aspect, from a leadership aspect. There wasn’t a lot of time to goof off.”
Hopkins’ friends, teammates and fraternity brothers agree, recalling him as someone who didn’t waste much time. Luke Petraitis ’90 ENG, who knew Hopkins from both the football team and the fraternity, recognized that from their initial encounter.
“The very first day that I met him, I asked him, ‘What do you want to be?’” Petraitis recalls. “And Mike, straight-faced and serious, said, ‘I want to be an astronaut.’
“He was the sort of person who would meet someone and make a first impression with that statement and be serious about it. … When it happened, none of us [was] surprised.”
Hopkins was such a dedicated student that he would leave frat parties at midnight to study, put in a few hours with the books, then return afterward to rejoin his friends. He began his master’s degree in aerospace engineering at Stanford University just two days after being commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
A 13-year wait
As an officer, Hopkins conducted flight testing and worked on advanced space system technologies at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M. He submitted his first application to NASA in 1996, with no luck. It would become a theme in his life: Every time NASA opened the application process, he would submit one and then get rejected.
“My thought was that becoming a NASA astronaut might never happen,” Hopkins admits, and by 2008, he had begun to accept the possibility that, for him, there might be a final frontier before space. So he began to think about what was next: He’d gained extensive experience conducting flight test engineering, served as an exchange officer with the Canadian Flight Test Center in 1999, did a tour in Italy in 2003, and raised two sons with his wife, Julie Stutz Hopkins ’91 AHS. And he’d been offered an opportunity to serve as a special assistant to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“Those kind of offers don’t come around very often,” Hopkins notes. He can’t discuss the work he did in Washington, D.C., but it coincided with another NASA application.
In June 2009, Hopkins was at work in the Pentagon when he saw that he had a message on his office answering machine.
Running out to the Pentagon’s courtyard to return the call on his cellphone, Hopkins found Steve Lindsey, the outgoing NASA chief astronaut, and his successor, Peggy Whitson, on the line. They asked him: “Do you want to move to Houston and change jobs?”
It was a huge moment for Hopkins. He’d been waiting for that call for 13 years.
Life at NASA
Hopkins joined the 20th NASA astronaut class in July of that year and entered the two-year astronaut candidate training program. It included scientific and technical briefings, intensive instruction in ISS systems, robotics, physiological training, T-38 flight training, and water and wilderness survival training.
After graduating from the program in 2011, Hopkins underwent two more years of ISS mission-specific training, followed by his first space mission (Sept. 25, 2013, to March 10, 2014). And then, after all of that, he was back on Earth—maybe for good.
Being an astronaut in 2014 is not the dream job it might have been 15 years earlier. During the height of the shuttle program in the 1990s, NASA would send more than 50 astronauts into space every year. Now, in the age of the Soyuz, the agency rents space on a Russian craft to place four Americans on the ISS annually.
With 40 active NASA astronauts, even if you get accepted, complete your training and do everything right, the odds aren’t great that you’ll actually be assigned to a space mission soon.
If you are that lucky, upon your return you spend several months in rehabilitation, getting used to 1 g gravity again. You undergo medical experiments because NASA scientists want to capture as much data as they can as soon as you land (before you’ve fully readjusted to being on Earth). There’s a lot of debriefing, where systems experts ask how your experience matched up with your training. And then for the next six months, you do public relations.
In that role, Hopkins has been candid about the reality of being an astronaut in today’s NASA environment.
Hopkins admits he was fortunate to have received his assignment just two years after entering the agency. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case for [many] of us,” he says. “Some astronauts end up waiting a long time before their first flight—as many as 10 years.” Of the 14 members of Hopkins’ 2009 astronaut class, five have yet to be assigned to a mission.
When—if—astronauts do get that call, the backlog is such that it’ll be an awfully long time before they actually get to go. “It doesn’t take a lot to do the math and realize that, for me, I just landed,” Hopkins says. “So you can see where I stand in line [now]. I’m at the back … with four slots a year and 40 of us.
“It can be a long, long time before I even have the opportunity to fly again. There are all of these [NASA-related assignments], and they’re great jobs to do here on the ground, but all of us came here to fly into space.”
Earthbound or not, Hopkins seemed to embrace doing PR with NASA. He returned to the Urbana campus in May to deliver the Commencement speech and reconnect not just with the engineering program but the football team and ROTC as well. Hopkins also commissioned new officers in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines during graduation weekend.
His other public-relations trips have taken him to New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. He’s also traveled to Cheyenne Mountain and Cavalier Air Force stations in Colorado and North Dakota, respectively; to the NASA facilities in Michoud, La.; and the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif.
In mid-September, Hopkins returned to a technical job in an office, doing what astronauts do for NASA when they’re not in space. He supports the fortunate few who are “on orbit” (as NASA likes to say), and helps train those preparing to enter space in the near future. He works with the new vehicles under development, including the Orion spacecraft that will mark America’s return to launching its own flights. At meetings, he serves as a representative for astronauts currently in space, providing an astronaut’s perspective on various decisions, and from time to time, he’ll probably do CAPCOM communications in Mission Control. And he’ll feel lucky for every minute he spends at NASA, regardless of whether or not he gets to go back into space.
“It’s been some tough years here recently,” Hopkins admits. “With the shuttle retirement, in a very short time period we got a lot smaller. That’s people lives. That’s people who have been here for years.”
A stark reality to confront, to be sure, but Hopkins has stared into the vacuum before and found it inspiring. This is no different. “People across the board around here are extremely motivated,” he says of his NASA colleagues. “They love what they do. They love space. They love being here and being a part of it.
“That’s a very positive thing about life here.”
Editor’s Note: You can follow Hopkins’ adventures as an astronaut on Twitter @Astroillini.