URBANA — Training on simulators is one thing. Orbiting the earth on a 925,000-pound space laboratory the size of a football field is something else altogether.
Two and a half years of training did not fully prepare astronaut Mike Hopkins for the thrill of his life aboard the International Space Station.
"The station is even more amazing than I ever thought it was going to be," Hopkins said Tuesday from space, addressing a spellbound audience at the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications via live NASA hookup.
"In some sense I feel like it's alive. There's just this constant noise," Hopkins said. "Even with all the simulators we have on the ground that look exactly like this, until you're up here and you feel that and you hear it and you sense it, that's probably something that you'll never get unless you're here."
Hopkins, a 1991 UI engineering graduate and former co-captain of the Illini football team, just completed the first of six months aboard the space station. The UI College of Engineering and Department of Aerospace Engineering worked with NASA to arrange Tuesday's face-to-face chat, which included a glimpse of Mission Control in Houston.
Hopkins had exactly 10 minutes to talk with UI aerospace engineering students, who submitted questions beforehand to be reviewed by NASA so he could be prepared, UI officials said. They read their questions before a giant image of Hopkins standing in front of a giant "Block I" orange flag inside the space station.
"University of Illinois, Fighting Illini, I hear you loud and clear, and I'm ready to answer some questions," Hopkins said to loud applause from Urbana.
Students asked about his work aboard the space station, the effects of living in the dark of space, and the future of space travel.
"I thought it was really insightful. He went pretty in-depth for the little amount of time that they had," said sophomore Nick Fulton, who would love to be an astronaut someday. "It was interesting to see his viewpoint and to talk to him while he was in space."
Graduate student Mustafa Mukadam asked whether it was difficult for the astronauts to keep track of time seeing multiple sunrises and sunsets each day as they orbit the Earth. Hopkins said they're kept on a tight schedule by NASA with a constant reminder of the time.
"Our schedule up here is down to 5-minute increments, so you never kind of lose that sense of time," he said.
Senior Jenny Roderick wondered which scientific and engineering principles Hopkins put to use on the space station.
"The thing about life up here is you need it all," Hopkins replied.
Earlier Tuesday, he had replaced a piece of air-flow equipment and repaired a carbon-dioxide removal assembly. But the astronauts also need their science background to monitor the 200-plus experiments they'll be conducting on the space station — like the one studying the relationship between protein and potassium and how that may affect bone loss in astronauts.
"You have to be a jack of all trades," he said.
Another student asked what problems need to be solved for future human space travel. Hopkins said current space missions receive "fantastic" ground support, but future missions to the moon, asteroids or even Mars will require more autonomy.
"If we're looking at going further out into the universe, then we need to be able to do that somewhat independently," Hopkins said.
What's his favorite thing to do in space? Float, of course.
"It doesn't get old, even just in the middle of the work day as you go floating around from one module to another. It's just fun," Hopkins said, following with an obligatory flip that drew applause.
"I really liked when he did the back flip," said UI sophomore Michael Miller, whose question prompted Hopkins' comment about the station feeling "alive."
Retired astronaut Steve Nagel talked with students before and after the NASA linkup and praised Hopkins for making it through the UI's engineering program with good grades while playing a varsity sport and completing the ROTC program.
"He's an incredible guy," said Nagel, a 1968 UI graduate.
Nagel, who had a long career in the Air Force and at NASA, flew four space shuttle missions from 1985 to 1993 as a mission specialist, pilot and commander. A former test pilot, Nagel said he didn't expect to be accepted into the space program but couldn't live with never trying. He said astronauts need to have perseverance and be "team players," and advised students who aspire to space travel to aim high, work hard and "have a plan B if it doesn't work out."
He met his wife through the space program and they even went on a mission together — though he emphasized that they didn't date until four years later.
Asked about his favorite moment in space, Nagel talked about a night he sat in the window of the shuttle, eating dinner as it made a night passage across the United States. As he watched city after city pass below him, then looked back across the Atlantic, a shooting star passed beneath the shuttle.
"It's like being in a glass-bottomed boat," Nagel said. He didn't have a camera but vowed to "make myself a memory and never forget it."
As to the future of commercial space travel, Nagel said there's no reason companies like Space X and others can't succeed. The question is whether there will be a long-term market to sustain it, he said.
Commercial companies are doing unmanned missions right now but hope to do manned missions to the space station or other destinations in the future, he said.
"That is definitely a big change in how we're doing things. I welcome it," he said.
NASA is worried about safety, Nagel said, but imposing all of the rigid safety constraints that NASA faces could make it too costly to operate a viable business.
"There's a balance in there somewhere, where it's safe but yet it's a little more streamlined than what we did with NASA. That's a difficult one they're wading through right now," he said.
Hopkins said training for astronauts headed to the space station won't change much even with commercial space travel. He spent more than two years training for space station work in Houston, Japan, Europe and Russia.
What will change is the training for the vehicles that will take them into space, he said. Most commercial space travel is centered in the U.S., so astronauts may be able to do more closer to home, he said.
Tuesday's chat took months of planning and coordination with NASA but would have been canceled had the government shutdown not been resolved, said Mike Koon, marketing and communications coordinator for the college, who supervised the event. Hopkins also recorded several promotional shots for the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, and the Big Ten Network was on hand filming for an upcoming program.