Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?
A: I have to say, I do not know why I wanted to become an astronaut. I think everybody goes through this when you are searching for what you want to do in life and what it is that makes you pick a particular path. I do not know what the answer is. I just know when I look at or think about what an astronaut does, that gets me excited. I get very passionate about it. I know there are people out there with different career fields who have that same kind of passion, that same kind of desire. It is just something that came from within. I have been very blessed to get the opportunity to follow that passion, that dream, but what it is I cannot put words to it.
Let me get you to put words to a few other things. We want to find out more about Mike Hopkins. Tell me about your own background. Start with your hometown and where you grew up…
…and what that place was like.
I grew up on a farm in rural Missouri and really kind of look at two hometowns. Up through grade school I went to one school in one hometown, and then, as I got into junior high and high school I changed schools and went to a different location. But both of those towns, those small communities where everybody knows everybody, where you rely on each other, you help each other. And really for me I think it gave me an opportunity to participate and develop that maybe larger cities or schools you sometimes don’t get. That was important for me because I got the chance to try a lot of different things, and whether it was sports or whether it was being in the school play, maybe I would not have had that opportunity in a larger community.
I was going to ask, participate in what? What were the different things that you were involved in?
Well, I was involved in…
You told me two.
Yes, so certainly I was involved in all of the athletic teams that we had, or the traditional ones for a small community such as football, basketball, track and field; but I also was in the school play, when I was taking typing I was participating in competitions for typing. So it just gave me those kinds of opportunities that, again, when I look at the larger schools, when you have this huge pool of kids to choose from, you may have to just select one or two things to do because there are just so many other people who also want to participate. For me, again, I think it worked out very well.
When it came time to leave there to go to college, what were you thinking about when you chose where you wanted to go next?
I chose to go to the University of Illinois and again was very fortunate that they accepted me. Primarily I was looking at the engineering school. I wanted to go into aerospace engineering and their program was one that I thought matched what I was interested in. At the same time I decided to try and walk on to the football team and they were willing to give me a shot, so that also was a nice opportunity to have.
Two things then that I have to follow up on. Where did the interest in aerospace engineering come from? Why was that something that you were looking for in a college?
I knew I was interested in engineering. My father was a pilot in the Marines back in the early ’60s. He flew A-4s, so there was aviation in my family. My uncle actually was a pilot as well in the Air Force. All that certainly peaked my interest in it and my interest in space. My desire to become an astronaut started back in high school and, at the time, that seemed like the logical field to go into.
When you were in high school, what was going on in space exploration at the time?
That time was the early days of the shuttle program and watching those early missions of the space shuttle certainly helped kindle that fire in me for space exploration.
You said that you also had the opportunity to play college football?
I did and that was an experience that I think was important for my progression and development in being able to become 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.
What position did you play and how well did your teams do?
I played defensive back, both strong safety and free safety, and had the good fortune of going to four bowl games while I was there, so we had some success.
Now in the process of going through college you also got involved in working toward the Air Force, right?
That’s correct. While I was in college at the University of Illinois I was in ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps, which meant when I graduated I was commissioned into the Air Force.
With the idea that you would use your aerospace engineering knowledge in the Air Force?
That is correct. When I first came into the Air Force I was working at one of their laboratories at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then I got into flight test as a flight test engineer and so had an opportunity to go to Edwards Air Force Base in California where the Air Force does a lot of its flight tests. I went through the school there, staying a couple years and getting to test airplanes. I followed that up with an assignment in Canada at their flight test center as an exchange officer and continued testing airplanes. I really enjoyed the job I got to do in the Air Force because I was taking classroom work, learning about aerospace engineering, understanding aerospace engineering, and getting to apply it firsthand in airplanes and jets. That was just a wonderful experience.
Your job was as a flight test engineer?
That is correct.
Explain to people what that means.
Most people are going to understand what a test pilot is doing, he’s the guy actually flying the jet. As a flight test engineer oftentimes we are sitting on the ground in a control room directing the pilot as he executes the test. But many times we also get to fly with them as we are executing a test. So the flight test engineer oftentimes is the person who is directing the test and is telling which test point we are doing, what the conditions are, and then as you are executing that maneuver the flight test engineer oftentimes is recording the data while the pilot flies the airplanes. So, as you go through school, a lot of what you learn is how to communicate between you and the pilot. Sometimes you are doing this translation between the engineering world and the pilots and making sure everybody understands what the airplane is doing and what the data means.
During the course of your Air Force career, you also did some other work, ultimately working in the Pentagon?
That is correct. I followed up my flight test work with an assignment first to Italy, where I became a political science student for a couple years, and then I went to the Pentagon where I worked in the acquisition side of the Air Force. I spent three years there working on some fascinating projects and followed that with an assignment on the staff of the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was just an amazing experience to see how the Department of Defense operates at that level.
At some point in all of that, you applied to become an astronaut. What spurred you to make that application?
I actually applied multiple times to be an astronaut. In fact, I got selected on my fourth application, so again it goes back to I had always had that desire to become an astronaut and so at the first opportunity I started applying and just continued applying each time there was a new selection process happening. I was very fortunate on the fourth try to get in.
And now you are going to become one of just a little more than two hundred different human beings who have actually been on the International Space Station so far. What are your hopes about how you can use your mission to inspire the other people who want to be astronauts and want to go to the space station and beyond that?
I think you inspire people by your actions, your accomplishments and the things that you do, so when you look at the International Space Station as a whole, the inspiration is there, the inspiration of what you can accomplish when you cooperate and you work together is truly amazing. The inspiration that you have this national laboratory that the private sector and scientists can now start to use in doing experiments in ways that they maybe had not thought of before. Now we have this laboratory where we are working in microgravity and can take that 1 g variable out of the equation. Then the station itself is certainly an accomplishment all by itself, but when you look at it as the stepping-stone for future exploration, for going beyond low Earth orbit, to me, that is all the inspiration a person would need.
You are about to fly in space and do a part of this job that admittedly has some risks to it. I assume that you think the risk is reasonable and worthwhile. The question is why. What is it that we are getting, what are we learning, as a result of flying you and other people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?
I am going to steal an answer I used earlier, and that is the knowledge that we gain, not only about ourselves but the universe in which we live. 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.
You and your crewmates are next in line to launch to the International Space Station. Mike, what are the goals of this mission and what are your jobs going to be on the station?
The goals of the mission really are to continue executing the mission that Expedition 36 is doing right now. What that means is maintaining the space station so we can execute the science objectives and then leave it in good shape for future expeditions so it is still there, operating and ready for them to do their missions as well. Our job, my role, is really to be a jack of all trades. What that means is I have to be able to maintain the space station, whether it is routine maintenance or whether something breaks and we need to fix one of the systems on board. I need to be able to do an EVA if called upon to do that, operate the robotic arms for when we have visiting supply vehicles that we need to capture, and execute the science mission. In many cases that gets very involved because we are human guinea pigs while we are up there.
That is a lot of different things in a lot of different areas. How hard has it been, as you train, to try to hold all that knowledge together?
It is very difficult, but fortunately there have been a lot of crews that have gone before me and my crew, and have really fine-tuned the training program. They do a fantastic job. The trainers are absolutely amazing and the program is well-designed, well-executed. It is a two-and-a-half year training flow so by the time you reach this point you definitely feel like you are ready to go.
You spent that time, and actually more time than that, studying this vehicle. On your first trip to space, what is it that you are most looking forward to seeing?
First and foremost, it is going to be the smiling faces of our crewmates when we open that hatch to the International Space Station. I cannot wait to see them because you have finally arrived at that point. Then in general, I think you probably hear this from a lot of astronauts, it is just the opportunity to see the Earth going by in all its glory and all its beauty. You see pictures of it but to actually get to experience that firsthand, I think, is just going to be incredible.
The International Space Station has changed a lot in the time that you have been at NASA. In fact, you are going to be on orbit for the 15th anniversary of the launch of the Zarya module, the very first component of the station to fly. What do you think about what this station has become in that amount of time?
Yes, it is truly incredible when you think about when Zarya launched fifteen years ago and then to where it is now, the size of a small five-bedroom house or actually quite a large house. It is a testament to the work of people from all the participating countries, all the crews, all the flights from shuttles to Soyuz to resupply vehicles that have gone on before it. It is truly incredible and I definitely feel honored just to be able to have a small part in it.
The assembly of the station is pretty much complete, and so all the attention is really getting more and more focused on the science work that you folks are doing, along with maintaining the facility to keep it going. How do you convey to somebody the potential for what is possible for us to learn using this laboratory in space?
Yes, it is very difficult because the potential sometimes you could say is almost limitless. We get to understand a lot about ourselves, about our bodies, how we adapt to the space environment, but then what we learn can also be applied to life here on Earth. We get to learn about the physical environment in which we live on Earth and we get to learn about the universe that our solar system and Earth are a part of. All of these things are just out there ready to be discovered, to be learned utilizing this incredible, incredible asset.
A big area of concentration for the science on board is learning how human beings can survive and thrive in this environment, what it does to the human body. In fact, the station program has recently announced that they are going to send two crew members there for a full year in order to gather more information about how people are living in this environment. What are your thoughts about a year-long mission for a crew on the station?
First I think it is an important step for learning about how the human body adapts to space for that long a time, for a year. It is important for us, if we are going to take the next step beyond low Earth orbit and visit the moon again or go to an asteroid or even on to Mars, to have a good understanding of that and the space station is an excellent platform for learning that information, for discovering what happens to us in that time frame. The crew they have selected, I think, is the right crew for it, is well- experienced, and I expect we are going to see some very interesting results.
Would you like to go for a year if they gave you the chance?
Of course, I would certainly relish the opportunities to fly in space again, but let us get through my first mission first.
Let’s talk about this area of science. As we say, what happens to people in this environment is crucial to future exploration. Can you give me two or three examples of human life sciences experiments that you are going to be involved with on this flight?
Yes, one of them is the Pro K experiment where we are looking at the ratio between animal proteins and potassium and how that affects bone loss. The idea is that if we can figure out what that right ratio is, we might be able to minimize the bone loss just through nutrition. So very easily you can see the applications for not only long-duration spaceflight but also down on Earth because, as we get older we experience some of the same negative effects of bone loss that we experience in space. If we are able to help mitigate that with just nutrition that would be fantastic. Another one that I find very interesting is the spinal ultrasound experiment. When we go into space, fortunately for someone like me, we tend to grow a little bit so I might actually become a little bit taller. What is happening to the spine we do not necessarily understand, just where that growth comes from, so we are taking a look at ultrasound as a method of being able to determine that. We can compare that data to MRIs that we have taken of my spine here on Earth and that will help us understand what is going on with the spine in space. But then the benefit from this is these techniques that are being developed, utilizing an ultrasound imaging with a non-medical expert who is doing it up on the space station, are applicable down on the ground. Now imagine a remote community that does not have an MRI there but you have someone with a spinal injury. If you have an ultrasound machine and someone who can operate that machine through remote guidance they may able to help determine what kind of injuries that person may have. So the benefits are not just for spaceflight in that case but also for here on the ground.
Those are a couple of good examples of things that you are going to be actively doing. Your just being there is part of an experiment, too, right?
Exactly, yes. You know, our bodies change when we get up there. We do not need as much fluid when we get up there. We have this bone loss. We have the muscle mass loss. We get taller. So with all of those effects we want to try and understand what is really happening and how we can mitigate some of those effects if they are negative. So yes, just being there, we are an experiment in work.
Now that is one area of sciences, human life sciences. This space station has several laboratories that are filled with specialized equipment to conduct science in other areas of research and you and your crewmates are going to be involved in a number of those. Can you give us some taste of what other kind of work you are going to be doing, apart from experimenting on yourself, during the time that you are in space?
What is interesting is that some of those experiments are not actually even inside. There are several experiments on the outside of the space station and oftentimes we do not necessarily have a lot of direct involvement in those experiments other than we are maintaining the station and providing power and cooling and things like that that they may need. For example, there’s MAXI, Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image, which is looking at cosmic X-rays and they have had some very interesting results. In fact, I think they were able to help detect a black hole shredding a star, and that is just fascinating. Not only is it fascinating but it helps you understand a little bit more about the universe. So there are these experiments that are not just inside but also outside like that. On the inside, for example, we have a capillary flow experiment where we are looking at how fluid behaves in the microgravity environment. Through this experiment we may be able to move fluids around without the need for a pump, being able to move or remove gases from that fluid without the need for a rotating pump or something of that nature. Those results also are extremely interesting and it will be fascinating to actually get to participate and help execute that.
Let me ask you, in the case of the capillary flow experiment you were just talking about, why would it be important to know how to move fluids or to remove gas from fluids without this other mechanism, without a pump or something else, how is that applicable in…
Yes, certainly the more pieces of machinery, the more complicated a system is, the more opportunities exist for it to break down, the more opportunities for it not to function properly. So if you can remove some of those pieces and you can potentially improve efficiencies, you can make things more reliable, as an example. But a lot of this research that is going on is very basic research as well, so we do not know exactly what the applications are going to be yet, but the understanding that we are gaining by executing these experiments on station is limitless as to what we may be able to do with some of this knowledge in the future.
It sounds like you may even be helping develop the machines or the technology that we need to do that exploration in the future.
I certainly think a lot of the science on board is geared toward space exploration. That is what NASA does, but also this national laboratory is an asset. We actually allocate some of those assets toward experiments that benefit life on Earth so we are looking toward the private sector to utilize this national laboratory for microgravity-based research.
Talking about different kinds of science that you do, not only on yourself but in the laboratories, and you made reference a minute ago to one of the important things, one of the science things you do is keep the station running so it can support all that other experiment work. Give us a sense of what is involved with that. I mean, you are not building the station anymore and it has been there for a long time so it operates pretty well; what has to be done on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis by the human crew members in order to support it?
In many senses the space station is not all that different from your own home. We have cooling and heating systems. We have plumbing systems. We have bathrooms and all of those things, just like in your home, that sometimes break down or sometimes need routine maintenance. We have to execute those and depending on whether something breaks or not will often dictate what our day looks like. One of the neat things about up on station is every day is going to be a little bit different because sometimes you just do not know. For example, when the waste hygiene compartment—that is our toilet on board—when it breaks a lot of the other work gets put on the back burners until we have that system fixed. So every day can be a little bit different. It is going to be executing science experiments. It is going to be having some system maintenance. There is always going to be working out on board which is very important for us to maintain our health, and then, of course, you still have to do the normal things like eat and sleep and live.
The exercise that you referred to, as you said, is something that all crew members have to do, but it is a particular interest of yours. Tell me about how you are going to try to work that required exercise into your own program.
Exercise has always been a huge part of my life. Since the time I was little all the way up through college and even beyond that, through my career in the Air Force; it is just something I have always been very passionate about. I have been very fortunate in having opportunities to play sports all the way up through the collegiate level. So I have wanted to try and share that passion, if you will, a little bit with people, and hopefully inspire people to get out and exercise a little bit by seeing how important it is to us on station, whether it be kids or adults, and at the same time peak their interest a little bit in space, spaceflight and all of that. I think that would be fantastic. So I am trying to gear up a little bit with the Train Like an Astronaut Program to highlight that. It is a program that tries to motivate kids to get out and exercise because healthy kids are going to turn into healthy adults, so I will tie into a little bit of that. Through avenues like Facebook we are going to share some of the videos of my workouts on station and we will put out there some of our videos and also the types of workout that I am doing and maybe some motivational clips and things like that. Hopefully we can reach out to some people that may not think about space as much, people who are very interested in the physical fitness things and may not realize how critical it is to spaceflight.
It is. It is a two-and-half hour daily commitment.
Is that more than what you normally do now?
Yes, it certainly is. What a wonderful opportunity to have two-and-a-half hours put on your schedule every day for working out! That is a dream come true for me. I think that highlights how important it is. When you think about what it takes to have built this station over the years and what it takes to put a person up on it, their time is valuable and yet, at the same time, we realize how important it is to keep them healthy. In order to do that we need to allocate that time for exercise.
Exercise on a daily basis is part of what you do, maintenance is part of it, science work is part of it, and that is what it is like for most of your mission, and yet there are some more dramatic periods of the mission. For you and your crewmates, one of those periods is going to be in November when, for most of a week you are going to have nine crew members on board all at the same time. What is causing that change in the usual situation?
Yes, it is going to be a very exciting time. Normally what happens is a three-person Soyuz crew departs before the next three-person crew arrives. Usually there is a gap of two to three weeks in between there you are going to have only three people up on station. In this particular case, what is driving the nine people on station, what that means is Karen Nyberg, Luca Parmitano and Fyodor Yurchikhin will not depart before the next crew arrives because that next crew is bringing up the Olympic torch. So during that period of time, for about four or five days, we will have the Olympic torch on board, and then Karen and Luca and Fyodor will take the torch back home with them.
This is part of the Olympic torch relay, I take it.
I guess you could say so, yes.
In fact, the torch is going out the door.
That is right. I do not know all the details of that particular EVA yet, but during that period of time it is going to be very busy. There is going to be a redocking or relocation of one of the Soyuzes while we are there. Then the torch arrives. There will be an EVA and then there will be the departure of Karen, Luca and Fyodor, so it is a very busy time. What happens during that EVA, a lot of those little details are still to be worked out, but certainly we are all very excited to have an opportunity to participate in this momentous event of the Olympics.
I want to ask you more about that, too, in a moment, but while we are on the subject of spacewalks, which is a very fluid sort of thing for, for all missions—spacewalks get planned and sometimes do not happen—what at this point is the plan for Russian and American spacewalks during your time on orbit?
Currently on the U.S. side, the USOS [United States Operating Segment] side, does not have any planned EVAs during our time on orbit. However, on the Russian side, the current plan was for seven EVAs during the time. A lot of that is tied towards the Multipurpose Laboratory Module, so it is going to be a very busy time for them as far as it goes with EVAs and we will see how all that actually plays out.
When your Russian crewmates do spacewalks, do you and the other U.S. segment crew members have a support role to play?
Our role during the spacewalk itself is very minimal. We will help get ready for the spacewalks. We provide some equipment so we will have to go through the procedures to make sure all of that is available to our Russian crewmates, and then, as far as the USOS involvement, it really depends on where your Soyuz is located. For example, my Soyuz is going to be located on the MRM-2 module and that puts me in a position where I need to be in, or close to, my Soyuz. So I will be isolated from the USOS segment during the spacewalk. On the other hand, Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata, for example, their Soyuz is located on the forward end of Zarya and so their Soyuz is accessible to them from the USOS side so they will have the full range of the USOS segment to operate and work in. So it kind of depends on where you are located. In my case, I will be down in one of the Russian modules and so what I will be able to do during that time will be somewhat limited.
Except maybe look out the window.
Which is not a bad thing!
You made a reference to the fact that a lot of that plan has to do with getting ready for a new Russian module. We said that the station was essentially complete, but it is not entirely complete: there is a plan for another Russian laboratory module called the Multipurpose Laboratory Module. The MLM is scheduled to come either late this year or later. What does that module add to the station? What does it do?
Actually it increases the capabilities of the station from a science perspective and from a life support perspective. From the outside it actually looks very similar to Zarya, the first module that was launched into space fifteen years ago, but on the inside it is quite a bit different. It has capacity for a lot of science experiments as well as some of the life support equipment that currently resides back in the Service Module [Zvezda] of the Russian segment of the space station. There will be backup life support equipment, there will be another toilet, there will be another sleeping quarters. So it really expands not only science but also that critical life support role.
Another—not “an other,” but “some other”—of the dramatic or dynamic events that take place will be when the station gets new supplies delivered on uncrewed cargo ships. There is a little armada of supply ships nowadays that comes to the space station including a couple of new commercial American vehicles. Give us a little primer on the different supply ships that are involved now in keeping the station operating.
Yes, it is actually fantastic to have such a large number, if you will, of different vehicles that can supply the station. In August, before I actually arrive to station, the Japanese supply vehicle, HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle]-4, is slated to arrive and should be completely unloaded, reloaded and undocked before I get there. What is coming next is the Orbital Sciences Corporation vehicle, the Cygnus, that is their demonstration vehicle. It should also arrive before I get there but is slated to undock after I arrive, so that will certainly be a momentous occasion to welcome another new commercial partner to the space station. That is also slated to potentially follow up with another Orbital vehicle in December, and then potentially the SpaceX-3 vehicle could also be coming aboard in that time frame.
There are also supply ships from the Russians and the…
…Europeans that are involved.
Yes, you certainly do not want to forget them. The Progress vehicles that the Russians launch have been the backbone of resupply for the station for a long time now and ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], which is docked to the station at this time, is the European supply vehicle. All of these are critical to keeping the station flying.
A few minutes ago we made a reference to the Olympic torch relay which this time around is actually going through the space station. It will be during the last few weeks of your time on orbit that the Winter Olympics are going to start in the Russian city of Sochi. What do you think it is going to be like for you and your crewmates, this international group on the space station, to be there doing this work while there is this international activity taking place on the ground?
Yes, I think it is going to be a very special time for us. Certainly there are a lot of parallels between the Olympics and the station. What I mean by that is they both take an amazing amount of international cooperation for them to succeed. You see that on the space station and you are going to see that on the ground. But at the same time there are a few differences. I do not think on board we are competing quite like the athletes will be competing during the Olympics, but at the same time there is such a positive feeling that comes out of the Olympics that I think you will see that same kind of positive experience happening up on board station.
That is not to say that you could not be having your own competitions at the same time.
Yes, we would have to figure out what events we would do, but snow skiing might be a little tough on station.
Do you think your team might have an advantage with you on it?
I do not know about that. Our Russian crewmates are certainly all very good athletes in their own rights and Koichi, when he is there, will certainly be able to hold his own.
Do you think by that time you would all have become accustomed to the environment…
That is right.
…and would be very sharp in zero g games?
It would be interesting to see what events would look like.
What are you most looking forward to about the flight in general, about your part in this program now?
That is a very tough question because there are a lot of things that you are looking forward to and, you know, I think first is actually getting the opportunity to execute the mission. We talked earlier about all this training that we have done to get ready for it. I kind of equate it to it being the pre-season before football season, or it is a young kid who is finishing college: he has spent the last four years studying and finally has that first job that he is going to go out and execute. I am looking forward to doing the job that I was trained to do. I think that it is going to be very exciting. I am very excited to represent my family, to represent my classmates here at NASA, to represent NASA in general and the country as a whole. Finally, and this one might seem a little strange to say, but I am also looking forward to coming home. Though I am certainly going to cherish every single moment I have up on space station, one of the great things about leaving home is coming home. Being reunited with my family, I think, is going to be absolutely wonderful, and so I certainly have to say, actually, that I am looking forward to that.
When all is said and done, if you think about it, tell me what it is you think that we are learning overall from all of these missions to the International Space Station that is preparing us for the future human exploration beyond low Earth orbit?
Yes, wow! That is a big question as well. I think in a very broad sense, knowledge. I mean, we are just gaining knowledge about so many different things from the International Space Station. We are learning about ourselves. We are learning about how our bodies adapt up there. We are learning about the world in which we live. We are learning about the machines that it takes to get us there, how those systems operate, how often they need to be repaired, what works and what has not worked. All of those are such a critical part of taking that next step, going beyond low Earth orbit and continuing human exploration.