Q&A with astronaut Mike Hopkins

Q&A with astronaut Mike Hopkins

Mike Hopkins' days as a human "guinea pig" aboard the International Space Station are over for now, but he hopes to wind up in space again someday.

After six months in space the NASA flight engineer is back home in Houston, reunited with his wife, Julie, and their two sons and working at the Johnson Space Center.

He's spent the last two months re-adapting to "life in a 1G environment" and undergoing tests by scientists who studied the astronauts while they were still in space. Scientists want to collect as much data as possible when the astronauts land to measure the effects of space travel, he said.

"We're guinea pigs while we're in orbit. We want to understand what happens to a human body in a microgravity environment," Hopkins said.

Hopkins, 45, also went through a debriefing about the space station with systems experts to discuss any problems and "ways we can make things easier for the next astronauts coming up."

In advance of this weekend's commencement activities, Hopkins talked with The News-Gazette about the future of space travel, the challenge of sleeping in orbit, phone reception on the space station and his favorite space food (and movie). He also reminisced about his harrowing first practice as an Illini football walk-on.

How long did it take you to adjust once you landed back home? Did anything surprise you?

You have to get your land legs back. ... Moving your head around, picking up a book, felt heavy for the first few hours. If I was to lean forward over a sink to wash my hands, I would just feel like I was going to keep right on going and face plant into the sink. That took a day or two before that feeling kind of went away.

On the other hand, regarding strength, we do some strength testing before we fly and the day or two after landing. That came back very quickly.

This is what really surprised me: A couple days before landing, I ran 12 miles on the treadmill. It took me one orbit around the Earth. Ten days after landing, I went outside to run, out of that controlled environment on a treadmill. I could barely run three miles. That was a lot of work.

You seemed to fare better than your Russian counterparts when they lifted you out of the module.

There is such a sense of relief, or kind of the weight being removed from your shoulders when you touch down. For six or seven months before launch, you have all the worries about passing your final exams and going on the launch. You get in orbit and there's this constant pressure, I have responsibilities, things can go wrong. ... When you touch down, there's definitely that, "Oh I'm home and I can relax a little bit."

You plan to recap your mission in a talk Friday at the College of Engineering. What will be the highlights?

It's hard not to talk about the highlight being the EVAs (extravehicular activities, or space walks) that we did right before Christmas. Certainly there is something unique, very special about going through the hatch into the vacuum of space. Having that opportunity is truly incredible. That was a defining moment for me and the mission.

Obviously, there were some things that had gone wrong at the station. It's very satisfying at the end of the day when you and the rest of the team were able to fix it and get the station up and running 100 percent. (Hopkins and his partner replaced a broken 780-pound cooling system while dangling 260 miles above Earth.)

The main objective, and I think we did quite well with it as well, is the science. We're up there to do science. It is an orbiting laboratory. We were able to accomplish everything on the plate for us with science, and maybe a little bit extra.

What have scientists learned about microgravity and the body from your mission?

There's really a wide range of experiments happening on board the space station:

One type is the alphamagnetic spectrometer, a sensor that sits on the outside of the space station. We don't have a lot of day-to-day interaction with it. We help maintain the station, help with data collection. It's out there looking for dark matter, the origins of the universe. That's pretty cool stuff. The data is collected and sent to investigators down on the ground.

Then there's experiments where we're helping to enable. We have a combustion chamber up there. Say you want to figure out how a fire suppressant works in microgravity. We'll set up all the experiments for it ... from the ground they'll actually do the execution and the data collection ... that may be happening while we're asleep.

Then there's the experiments where we're hands-on as they're happening. A capillary flow experiment. We're looking at how fluids behave in space. ... We're hands-on, talking to the PIs as we're executing and collecting the data.

Finally, there's the ones where we're guinea pigs. We're very involved in those. ... We're looking at what happens to the spine in the microgravity environment, when it starts to compress. We'll actually take ultrasounds of each other with the remote guider. They'll help us as we're collecting information on each other.

Any scary moments during the space walks?

No. Obviously, we spend a lot of time training for these events. ... Everything we do when we're out the door — which tools we're using, where we place things — there's a team of experts on the ground who have drafted that procedure and gone through it with a fine-toothed comb and made it what it is so we can go out the door and execute it.

Was it what you expected?

Before you're in space, you wonder, "What's floating really going to be like?" You can dream about it, you can think about it, but until you're there you just never really know. Until you're faced with going out that hatch, it's hard to say was it what I expected or not.

The interesting part is, you open that hatch, you look out, you see the Earth without any obstructions, which is utterly stunning. But then the training kicks in. ... You do the things you've done time and time again in the pool here at Johnson Space Center. You practice these. You just start to settle in: OK, I've done this before. The only difference is now I'm in the big vacuum of space instead of a pool.

I was certainly nervous, I'm not going to deny that. But that's all part of it, too. You have to overcome that and really focus on doing the job.

Did you see the movie "Gravity"?

We did. About two weeks before landing.

Did it bother you to watch it?

It didn't really. It was an entertaining movie. But there's a lot of things that happen in there that probably aren't realistic. Just the ability to go from the shuttle to the U.S. space station to the Chinese space station. That would be a little harder. Just the way the orbits lined up and the distances. ... (But) it's supposed to be entertaining.

Best space movie: "Apollo 13," "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Gravity"?

I'd probably have to go with "Apollo 13." I've kind of become a "Firefly" fan. They made a movie out of it, too, "Serenity." ... It's just kind of a fun space cowboy thing. Just enjoyable.

How much sleep did you get?

I got between 5 to 6 hours of sleep, which is kind of normal for me on the ground. Actually, you sleep quite well up there. It's very relaxing. We have a little crew quarters, about the size of a broom closet or phone booth. You just strap your sleeping bag on one of the walls and you crawl in.

Some people will sleep with their arms out, which is interesting because your arms will float. I tend to sleep with my arms on the inside all strapped in.

I was very well rested up there ... but you know how after a long day and you're kind of tired, you lay down in bed, and you get that sense of relief as all of the load goes off your body? There's none of that sense up there, because you're always like that. You're always floating.

Besides your family, what else did you miss?

I missed a shower. We take spit baths occasionally. Actually, you stay quite clean up there, but you do miss a nice, clean shower.

I miss fresh produce. We got it occasionally, when a vehicle came up with supplies. Sometimes we got fresh fruit, so that was great.

How often did you talk with your family?

They do a fantastic job of helping us stay in touch with our families. We have an IP phone on board, we can actually call any time of the day as long as we have satellite coverage.

Once a week we get to have a video connection, so they actually provide some of the hardware to the families with software on it that allows us to do a video conference. A couple of times, it worked out when I called my sons, who play hockey, were at a hockey game. My wife had an iPad, so she would just point the camera at the ice and she could tape it in real time.

You've credited your former undergraduate adviser, Professor John Prussing, and former Illini football coach Lou Tepper with guiding you through the UI. How did they influence you?

Professor Prussing was my counselor and I took a class from him as well. He just has a way about him that we can learn about. He is just very calm but very knowledgeable, very enthusiastic about what he's doing, and it's contagious.

Coach Tepper (then defensive coordinator) and coach Steve Bernstein, the defensive backs coach, they really gave me my shot. They were the ones who put me on the field for the first time, and gave me that opportunity. I'm very grateful for that. Both of them are also very motivational, and it was a pleasure to have the honor to play for them.

Did you make the team right away?

It's kind of funny, my locker was actually over in the visiting locker room. They didn't have enough room for us. Ten or 15 walk-ons were over there. We always had to clear our stuff out whenever a game was coming up.

I still remember the first day I show up at practice and the defensive line coach, he calls me over for some of the defensive line drills. We were getting ready to play a team who had a scrambling quarterback.

He gave me the ball, had me line up about 10 yards deep, then pointed to the three linemen. He said, "All right, Hopkins, your job is to stay away from these guys as long as you can. Don't let them tackle you."

I was 175 pounds. These guys were all 280, 300 pounds. That definitely was an eye-opener. I ran for my life. My eyes were real big and I was just running as hard as I could.

How long did it take before you played?

I got real lucky. My first year there was with Mike White as the coach, in 1987. And then he had to leave. ... And he left at a time that didn't really leave much opportunity for Coach (John) Mackovic on the recruiting side. So we had a very small freshman class. ... That kind of opened up the door for some of the walk-ons like me to maybe get an opportunity to get on the field. I played on special teams my redshirt freshman year. My sophomore year, I was doing the same thing.

That year, we were playing for the Big Ten championship against Michigan. Marlon Primous, the starting free safety, went down. I was one of the backups. Pat Donnelly and I shared playing time for the rest of that game. That was pretty exciting. We shared the rotation through the final two games.

At that point, it kind of just steamrolled. I got more and more playing time, and really had a great time.

Do you want to go back up into space, and how soon?

I'm very interested in going up again. I know where I stand at the line right now: at the back of it. It's quite long. There's 40 or 50 astronauts, and we only have four slots a year. It's going to be a while before I have the opportunity to fly again.

I have two sons, one in high school, and one that will be in high school soon. It's nice to be able to spend some time with them at this time in their lives. I have classmates that came into NASA who are probably going to potentially end up waiting eight or nine years before they get an opportunity to fly. I feel very blessed. (Hopkins was one of nine astronauts chosen from 3,564 applicants in 2009.)

If I get the opportunity again, I'll take it.

With the International Space Station, as of right now, we have each year four U.S. astronauts help man it. That number could go up in the future when we start having commercial crews, new vehicles that'll be launching from U.S. soil.

You said in October that manned missions to Mars or beyond will require more autonomous support. Can you explain that?

Going to Mars, I think that's the ultimate objective. We would love to do it.

We're quite a few years away from that, as well as a lot to do in the meantime — building the rockets that have the capabilities to launch things of that size, that magnitude, that we would need to go to Mars. That's a priority right now, as well as a vehicle to get us there and back.

Right now, with the space station, a lot of true systems experts are here on the ground. The station would not operate without them. The problem is, if we started to go beyond low Earth orbit ... our ability to control things in a real-time fashion will get less and less. As you get further away, and communication links get longer and longer, you have to be able to get more autonomy.

How soon could that happen?

They're talking about the 2020s and 2030s time frame, 2030 before we'd look at going to Mars.

You celebrated your birthday in space. Did you have a cake?

I did not have a birthday cake. I may have had a birthday peach cobbler.

What was your favorite space food?

It's probably going to have to be the beef enchiladas.


Family affair

The Hopkins family will give two perspectives on the life of an astronaut today at the University of Illinois.

NASA flight engineer Col. Mike Hopkins will give a 90-minute presentation on his recent mission aboard the International Space Station at 3 p.m. in Room 1122 of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, 1205 West Clark St., U.

At the same time, his wife, Julie Hopkins, will talk about the space travel experience from the family's perspective at 3 p.m. in the Illini Union's Courtyard Cafe. Both of these events are free and open to the public.

On Saturday morning, Mike Hopkins will deliver the 2014 commencement address at Memorial Stadium.