URBANA — Mike Hopkins had been preparing for this moment since high school, when he first set his sights on becoming an astronaut.
At 3:58 p.m. Central time Wednesday, the University of Illinois engineering graduate and former Illini defensive back realized his dream, blasting into space aboard a Soyuz spacecraft with Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy.
The crew took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a six-hour flight to the International Space Station, where they will spend six months conducting more than 200 experiments before returning to Earth in March 2014.
Hopkins, 44, an Air Force colonel and 1991 UI graduate in aerospace engineering, is the sixth UI alumnus to become an astronaut, according to the College of Engineering.
"Needless to say we're very excited to have another former student get the chance to go to space," said Professor Philippe Geubelle, head of the UI Department of Aerospace Engineering. "I'm absolutely convinced that 90 to 100 percent of students join aerospace because they would like eventually to become astronauts. It's nice to see that some actually get to live the dream."
At a news conference Tuesday, Hopkins admitted to being "very excited, a little bit nervous but also very confident."
The live NASA feed of the launch Wednesday showed Hopkins, in the right-hand cabin seat, calmly preparing for liftoff with his crew mates. The rocket lifted off in a fireball and soared into the night sky, quickly becoming a flaming dot on its way to a 9:58 p.m. rendezvous with the space station orbiting overhead.
The rocket reached 3,937 miles an hour within two minutes of ignition. The module separated from its boosters and switched to solar power a few minutes later, reaching orbit in less than 10 minutes. The Soyuz was to orbit the Earth four times before docking at the space station, where Hopkins and his crew-mates will join an international three-person crew and assist with experiments in biology, biotechnology, physical science and Earth science.
In a pre-flight interview with NASA, Hopkins said he decided to become an astronaut in high school, during the early days of the space shuttle program. He was already interested in engineering, as his father was a former Marine pilot and his uncle flew for the Air Force. Watching the early shuttle missions "helped kindle that fire in me for space exploration," he said.
Hopkins was born in Lebanon, Mo., and grew up on a farm in nearby Richland. He said his small high school allowed him to try a range of activities, including several sports, theater, even typing competitions.
He chose the UI for its highly rated engineering school but also decided to walk on to the football team in 1988. He won a scholarship, became a starter and was team co-captain as a senior, playing defensive back and going to four bowl games.
He said the experience was important for his development as an astronaut because "when you participate on a team like that you need to learn to work together. You succeed or you fail as a team and I think that was an important part of my growing up," he said in the NASA interview.
Assistant Athletic Director Kent Brown said Hopkins balanced the rigors of football practices with an "unbelievably challenging major" while at the UI.
"He's obviously taken that work ethic on with him," said Brown, who also watched Wednesday's launch. "This was always his total dream to be an astronaut. We couldn't be any more proud of what he's accomplished."
Hopkins publicly credits his former undergraduate adviser, Professor John Prussing, with guiding him through those critical years at the UI, along with former Illini Coach Lou Tepper.
Prussing said he taught Hopkins in several courses and "he was a very good student. He was very focused."
"It's relatively rare for an engineering major to be on the football team," not to mention participating in ROTC, Prussing said. "That package is a challenging thing to accomplish."
After graduation, Hopkins completed a master's degree in engineering from Stanford University and then began working on space systems technologies at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. He later became a flight test engineer at Edwards Air Force Base and in 2002 won a scholarship to study political science in Italy. He then went to work at the Pentagon, eventually becoming a special assistant to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He was selected for the astronaut corps in 2009, on his fourth try, and is the first member of his class to fly into space.
At the space station, Hopkins and his crew will join three other astronauts from the United States, Russia and the European Space Agency. In November, a new crew will bring up the Olympic Torch as part of its relay to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Hopkins said the International Space Station is an inspiration that shows "what you can accomplish when you cooperate and you work together."
"I think humans are always striving for knowledge, for knowing what is beyond the hill, for knowing how each little thing works in our world. Whether it is the human itself, whether it is anything within biology, the physical world, all of that, we have this desire to know as much as we can about that and the International Space Station fits right into that. We are gaining so much knowledge every day from what we are doing up there that I think that makes it well worth the risk."
Geubelle and Prussing said Hopkins' story is a valuable motivator for current engineering students who may one day work on a space mission.
"It's great to see someone who walked the same halls I did achieving the same goal," said Erik Lopez, a junior.
Lopez got the chance to meet Hopkins in July while working as an intern at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Hopkins was training at the space center's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which has an enormous pool that simulates weightlessness and a mockup of the space station.
"He is one of the most amazing people I've ever met. He is just incredibly nice and humble," Lopez said. "I introduced myself and said I went to the University of Illinois and he just immediately lit up."
Hopkins spent a half-hour talking to Lopez and other UI students interning at the space center.
"One thing he told me was not to be too caught up in the whole astronaut thing, just do what I love and hope that it will take me there," Lopez said.
Six University of Illinois graduates have flown into space:
Michael Hopkins, bachelor's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, 1991*
Lee Archambault, bachelor's and master's degrees in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, 1982, 1984
Scott Altman, bachelor's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, 1981
Joseph Tanner, bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, 1973
Dale Gardner, bachelor's degree in engineering physics, 1970
Steven Nagel, bachelor's degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, 1969
* Department changed its name to aerospace engineering in 2003
(Editor's note: Story has been updated to correct the former name of the department.)