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Preflight Interview: Tim Kopra, Mission Specialist
10.07.10
 
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NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, STS-133 mission specialist, participates in training session in a shuttle mock-up in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-133 interview with Mission Specialist Tim Kopra. Tim, tell us about the place or places that you grew up and what about those places that influenced who you’ve become.

I grew up in Austin, Texas, which I think is a great town. It’s still a great town. I’m a big fan of Texas and particularly Austin, Texas. Austin was sort of an eclectic town. It was a college town, very vibrant, very lively and very youthful and I think that one thing I got out of living in Austin, Texas, was the feeling that anything is possible. There’s lots of freedom to move around the town. It was a very safe place to grow up and to live and I think that’s one of the things that influenced me and in addition to that, I had some very influential teachers that taught me a lot about leadership and about myself and I think it definitely put me on the right path.

Did you get a chance to see Austin, the Austin area, from space at any point?

I did. In fact, one of my goals was to take lots of pictures of Texas and particularly Austin and the surrounding lakes. We spent lots of summers on Lake Travis, just north of Austin, and you’d think with a big state like Texas that it’d be very simple to take lots of photographs but when you’re moving at five miles a second, you have to be very good and really on target and so we fly over this whole chain of lakes in central and north central Texas and it was difficult even identify which lake was which and so it took several passes but eventually I got some really great shots of Lake Travis and, Austin.

Every accomplishment begins with some form of motivation. You’ve been an astronaut for about ten years and you’ve been with NASA longer than that. Tell us about what motivated you to pursue this line of work. You mentioned teachers. Were there other motivations?

I’m forty-seven years old. I was born in 1963 and when I was a little kid we were landing men on the moon and I think every kid my age wanted to be an astronaut, a fireman, a policeman. Little boys, that’s what you gravitated to when I was growing up and I remembered being totally enthralled with the space program at a very young age and I, know that had a very distinct impact on me. My brother, if it was at all possible, was more interested in space than I was and I remember staying up late, watching the moon landings with my brother and you know, if, for me it was just a huge goal which, you know, at the time when you’re a kid, you know, everything is achievable and then, over time perhaps, you, kind of lose grasp of those unachievable goals but over time it became clear to me, when I was at West Point, that it was something that was possible because there were several people who had graduated from West Point and even some of my instructors eventually became astronauts and, that, it went from this unrealistic childhood goal to something that was fully tangible and possible if you work really hard.

Looking back on watching those moon landings, did you have a sense of what the implications were actually, what was going on at that point or was it just a cool factor as a kid?

Well, I think the implication in terms of the achievement and how big this event was for the nation, well, I think even as a very young person I had a grasp of that it was a big deal. You could see especially on the first moon landing how there was the tickertape across different places throughout the world talking about the first man to step on the moon and so it was very clear even to all of us young people that this was a huge event. Definitely a cool factor, but more than that it was a tremendous achievement for mankind.

Recount for us the steps you took in your military career to get to NASA and then subsequently to that, on to the Astronaut Corps.

Sure. I’ve had a lot of fun working in the Army. I started out as a West Point Cadet and I went straight from high school to the United States Military Academy at West Point and I spent four years there and then I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and after Flight School I was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and I was an aero scout Pilot and Platoon Leader so I had some of the introductory leadership jobs that, that young officers have and after serving there I went to Germany. I served as a Company Commander for an Apache Company, also spent time in Desert Shield and Desert Storm so I had a lot of very traditional army jobs from the standpoint of leadership opportunities and learning how staffs work. From there my career was a little bit different than an average army career in that I went to a more technical side. I went to graduate school at Georgia Tech for aerospace engineering and then I went to the U.S. Navy Test Pilot school and learned how to fly aircraft that had been modified or adjusted or brand new aircraft and what the implications were so that was an opportunity to understand that tie between the operational world which I had served in the military and the technical world which I was becoming introduced to through my graduate studies in Test Pilot School. So after that I spent time at Fort Rucker, Alabama, as an experimental test pilot and after serving there for a couple years and working on the Comanche Helicopter Project I came here to Johnson Space Center and I worked with space station hardware for about two years and learned what it was like to work in the NASA environment and what the space side of the world was like and then I was selected in 2000 to become an astronaut.

How much time, when did you first apply to become an astronaut and how much time was there in between the application and when you got the call to say, “Hey, do you want to be an astronaut?”

Well, I had applied once before, I think around 1993 or so and I really didn’t have the experience base in order to be selected so for me it’s sort of a shot in the dark. I knew that I wanted to do it and the first step is applying because if you don’t apply you’re surely not going to be selected. For the time in, during which I was selected, I think I applied in late 1998-1999, and then our class was announced in July of 2000 so there were many months between putting the packet in and then getting an interview which meant you were on a short list and then being announced. So I think my interview was in September of 1999, which was several months after my application was turned in and then our class was announced in 2000 so it was a long period of time and a lot of waiting and I’m sure that of my classmates were very anxious to find out.

Do you recall where you were when you got the…

Absolutely, oh, yeah.

Tell us that story.

So you’re really anticipating the call because the call is one, “Hey, you’ve been selected” or “Thank you very much for applying but we’ve chosen someone else on this go around” and, on my case I was working at Johnson Space Center as an engineer and I was at Huntsville at Marshall Space Flight Center working with some of the space station hardware. We were inspecting the hardware and performing tests on the hardware to make sure that all the spacewalk interfaces were good for the spacewalkers and so I was in the office there at Marshall and I got a call from Bill Parsons and he said, “Do you know why I’m calling?” I said, “I might, Sir.” He said, “Well, I just want to let you know that you’ve been selected in the, the Class of 2000.” So it was an exciting time. Either I was in trouble because of something I’d done on my job or it was a really good news phone call and it turned out to be that.

We go back to education and you mentioned it before. Tell us how you would characterize what education means to the advancement of anyone’s life.

You know education is absolutely key and one thing that I think is particularly difficult for young people to understand and I say that because it was difficult for me to understand at the time is that every educational opportunity builds on itself and is useful in some way and sometimes it’s not so tangible. If you’re learning a specific skill how to repair a car, for example, then you can directly apply that skill to repairing the next car but if you’re studying calculus how do you apply calculus to your everyday life? And I tell our kids the same thing and that is a lot of what you do in school teaches you how to think and it teaches you how to solve problems and sometimes it’s not a direct application of that piece of your educational experience that you use. What it does is, it teaches you how to solve those problems and in very intangible ways it allows you to broaden what you do in your life and I like in every course that I’ve taken, and especially that are much more intangible, as a tool in my kit bag and at some point, whether I can even recognize it or not, it’s information or it’s skill or maybe even a small piece of wisdom that I’ve gained through that educational experience and life experience that I can apply to a completely different situation. So education is key and none of it is wasted.

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NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, STS-133 mission specialist, is pictured during a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

In 2009 you spent some time onboard the International Space Station as a Flight Engineer on Expedition 20. What was it like living and working on the station and what are you most looking forward to on your return trip to ISS?

it’s almost indescribable what it’s like to live and work on the International Space Station. In some respects it’s sort of a surreal experience because on the one hand, it’s completely like you’ve been trained to do. You’re executing experiments you’ve been trained on. You’re maintaining the vehicle to make sure it’s in good operational order and sometimes things break and we’re trained how to fix it. You exercise because you need to make sure that you protect your body from bone loss and make sure you maintain your muscle mass. Those are all things that we’ve been trained to do and so it’s, in that respect it’s identical to the ground. On the other hand, you’re floating and you look out the window and you see the planet below you and you can look out and you see the blackness of space and it is black and you recognize that it’s a vacuum out there and it’s an abyss. So you combine these two experiences, one that’s very familiar and one that is completely unfamiliar and once you fully recognize that you’re in the spaceship going around the planet every ninety minutes and bring that all together with your experience it’s just a tremendous life opportunity and I’m very thankful for it. For this next trip I think that one of the things that I’m looking forward to the most is seeing the Cupola. When the STS-130 mission came back and I was talking with one of the crew members and I said, “Well, you know, the Cupola must be, you know, similar to looking out the shuttle windows” because the shuttle windows are very large and you have a very large field of view and one thing I noticed as a difference between the windows in the service module, for example, and the shuttle windows is that when, when you can see a broader picture, I think your mind integrates that and it gives it more of a, a 3-D and so I likened these new Cupola windows with the shuttle windows and this STS-130 crew member says, “No, it’s nothing like that. It’s completely different. It almost feels as if you’re outside.” So I’m really looking forward to seeing that, observing the planet and space and also looking at these new modules that we’ve added because it’s even bigger than the last time we were there. We have Node 3 and we have a new Russian module as well so all that and seeing how the crew for the International Space Station is doing and chatting with them about their experiences. Those are the things I’m looking forward to.

You’ve had the experience of living and working on the space station but you’ve also spent some time flying on the shuttle too. Compare and contrast those experiences. They’re obviously different experiences. What do you remember most about your shuttle flight?

They are different experiences but they’re also very similar. The pace is actually very quick for both a shuttle mission and a station mission. The primary difference is that the shuttle is much more choreographed because there are very specific tasks that have to get accomplished in a very finite amount of time. So for example, on STS-127 in the course of the mission we had five spacewalks and lots of robotics onboard between the SSRMS which is the space station arm, the shuttle arm and the Japanese robotic arm so lots of choreographing and lots of very synchronized events and that’s sort of the typical space shuttle mission. It’s all synchronized and closely planned out whereas on the station mission, although the days are very full and we’re very active all the time, you do get into more of a routine of life. You sleep. You get up. You get ready for the day. You look at your schedule. You complete experiments. You maintain the vehicle. You exercise. You chat with your crewmates. You have dinner together and so you sort of get into a routine and look for those short periods of time that you have off to take pictures or even call home on the Internet protocol telephone and e-mail so some of those niceties, I think, are one addition you have with a space station mission. Although it’s very busy, you do have just a little bit more time to do those kinds of things as well.

Prior to your first spaceflight, you served some time doing a long duration underwater in NEEMO Mission.

Um huh.

How did spending that time underwater prepare you for your time on space station?

It’s actually a great environment in which to prepare for a space shuttle and a space station mission. Just like those missions, it was a small crew, a crew of six. We were in a very confined environment. We had lots of objectives to accomplish every day. We did simulated spacewalks outside of Aquarius and walking around on the bottom of the ocean. So just the interpersonal aspect of it and working with a small team and also working with a remote Mission Control, all those aspects were very similar to space flight and I think it’s a very valuable experience, too. One aside on that NEEMO mission, it was also similar to space station and space shuttle missions where you learn that, that humans adapt very quickly to their environment and when I was on NEEMO one of the times that we did the simulated spacewalk on the bottom on the ocean, we’re wearing a, a super light seventeen dive helmet which gave us oxygen and our communications and we had weights in our, our boots and we had a suit on so that we could walk around on the bottom of the ocean and we had been out for maybe a couple of hours and then I realized that it felt perfectly normal. Now that’s strange, when you’re walking around ninety feet on the bottom of the ocean wearing this suit and it feels normal, that’s a demonstration that humans can adapt to their environment and that’s just like space.

There are thousands of people that work behind the scenes to insure the success and safety of the crew and every mission. Tell us about how you would characterize those people’s contributions to every mission.

You know one thing that was very clear on my last mission, and especially on the station mission when you have a chance to reflect on what’s going on the space business is a team sport and although our job has lots of visibility really I think the heavy lifting is done on the ground. By the time all the, the products are put together which means the procedures and the training and all the support for our mission is complete, our job becomes relatively simple in comparison to the, the day in and day out preparation for the mission and so I, I think all of us feel pretty humbled to be part of any space shuttle or space station mission because there’s so much work that is done to make this happen and all of us are very thankful for their hard work.

If the timeline holds and you launch when you’re supposed to, now you’re scheduled to be on station right around the tenth anniversary of the arrival of Expedition 1. That crew established continuous human presence on ISS. Discuss the significance of that milestone that they made and the station’s importance to the future of space flight.

Absolutely. We’re very thankful for those early crews because it’s not just the mission that they were the pathfinders for. It was the training as well. The training is very arduous and there’s lots of sacrifices that the crew members make in order to get there in terms of time away from family and the arduous training they must go through in order to get ready for the mission and they were the trailblazers and every mission after that has made it that much better and it goes along with the ground teams getting those crews ready for flight. They made a lot of those preparations in terms of getting crews ready. The other part of that though is that we’ve watched the space station grow from one module to a couple modules on which they live, to now this full blown flying city in space when fully supports six crew members. It’s a testament to the dedication of the ground teams that done this, the people that have built the hardware and tested the hardware to make sure that it all works, all the people that are training the crews and the crews themselves to make this very complex operation happen. So we’re very thankful for those early crews in particular to, their contribution to make sure that we can continue this and this is a stepping stone. We have this space station going around our planet but this is the first step in a very long term aspect of human exploration so someday we hope to go on beyond low earth orbit. Go to the moon, go to Mars and continue this path but it’s started with those, that first crew on the International Space Station.

We’ve touched on some of the background of what the mission is all about but just for the record again, tell us what the key objectives of the mission are and we’ll get into talking about the specifics of the modules and stuff a little bit later on, but…

Okay.

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NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, STS-133 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

…just the key objectives of what the mission is…

Sure. We have a few key objectives on this mission. We have two very large payloads in our payload bay. We have an ELC4 which is an Express Logistics Carrier and on this carrier is a radiator that could be used in the future, if one were to fail and we were to replace it. That gets installed on space station. We have a PMM which is a Permanent Multipurpose Module and that is taken out of the payload bay and installed on the bottom side or the nadir portion of the Node 1 module and then we have two spacewalks and the objective of those spacewalks is really to get lots of tasks completed so that once the shuttle retires we’re in the best possible situation for maintaining the International Space Station.

And tell us what your main responsibilities in the capacity of Mission Specialist 2.

As Mission Specialist 2 I’m a essentially a flight engineer for the Commander and Pilot on the Flight Deck so the Pilot is sitting to my right and the Commander is sitting to my left and I’m in between and on a nominal flight things are relatively routine and we’re prepared for that because we have procedures. We execute those procedures and then we have a safe ascent and a rendezvous with space station and a very safe entry and landing back at Kennedy Space Center. One of the primary things we do for training is to prepare for those off nominal situations where things don’t work like they’re supposed to. The space shuttle is a very robust vehicle and there’s lots of redundancy onboard so that when things fail, we have opportunities to make it right but that also requires lots of coordination on the Flight Deck and Al Drew will be sitting next to me as the Mission Specialist 1 on the way up and then Nicole Stott on the entry coming home. As a team of four on the Flight Deck we try to make sure that we get everything done so that it’s a safe flight going up and coming down. Then once we get to space station we rendezvous with space station on Flight Day 3 and right away Nicole Stott and I go to the Cupola and our job is to pull out the ELC4. We hand it off to the space shuttle arm and then we pick that back up and then Nicole will install that on the trusses on the space station. So that’s one of the very first things we do.

Okay. Give us some more background, if you would, on the Permanent Multipurpose Module, the PMM and how it’s been configured differently from a regular MPLM, a Multipurpose Logistics Module. What is it going to be used for and how has it been configured to make it useful for that purpose?

Sure. The PMM, the Permanent, the multipurpose module started out as an MPLM, a Multipurpose Logistics Module, which was built by the Italians and we’ve used that on many missions to bring up payloads. Typically it’s docked to space station. The space shuttle crew unloads all the equipment onboard, stores it onto space station and then that’s placed back in the payload bay of the shuttle and taken back home and then is prepared for a future flight. What we’ve done with the PMM, is that we’ve made it so that it is a little more robust and safer for being exposed to space for a long period of time so they’ve improved the shielding and some of the components inside so that it’s a, very useful storage location on space station once it’s docked. So it will come full of equipment but even so one of the things that we’ve found with space station is that it’s very important to have closets. You’d have a place to store all your equipment, especially now because with the retirement of shuttle, we’re now relying on other vehicles to bring equipment onboard and so we’re trying to get things maximized so that we can keep that crew of six onboard.

On the same day that you are scheduled to dock to the station, you’re scheduled to also take out the logistics carrier from the payload bay and attach it to station. Kind of give us a blow by blow account of how that’s going to happen and tell us where ELC4 will be temporarily docked to.

Sure. It’s a pretty busy day. We rendezvous with space station and as soon as the hatch opens up we all go into space station. They give us a safety briefing for where the equipment is located and things that we need to know, but then right after that Nicole and I go to the Cupola and get ready to remove the logistics carrier from the payload bay. The folks on the Flight Deck will open up some hardware that keeps it restrained in the payload bay and then we’ve already attached it with the space station arm. It’s removed out and then it gets passed off to the space shuttle arm. Then we reconfigure the space station arm. We take it back and then Nicole will fly it and dock it onto a common attach system onboard space station that’s located on the starboard side which is the right hand side as you’re facing forward inboard of the solar arrays on the bottom or nadir portion of the truss.

And also, if you would do the same for the process of getting the PMM out of the payload bay and attaching it.

The PMM is probably a little bit cleaner process because we don’t need to do a swap with the space shuttle arm. So we come in with the space station arm. We attach it on to the PMM. We pull it out and we do an automatic maneuver after that manual flying that gets it ready for installation on the Node 1 module, on the bottom or nadir portion of the module and then the last part, we fly it in and it gets to a certain point where it hits some levers that tell us that it’s within reach to go ahead and attach it with some hardware that allows it to berth up and sixteen bolts can be driven that make it a permanent part of the space station.

You and Al Drew have two spacewalks on STS-133. Tell us about what’s going to happen on EVA 1?

Well, real excited to be able to have some EVAs on this flight and we’ve been working really hard with both the ground team and our crew that’s going to be working on robotic arm during the same time. So our first EVA is one in which Al and I are going to work together quite a bit. We have a robotic arm operation in which we’re going to remove the pump module that’s stowed on the front face of the space station and we’re going to put it back where it was initially stowed the one that they used to replace the broken one on space station. And so we’ll go ahead and remove that from the front face, install that on a platform on space station and Mike Barratt is going to be flying me while I’m on the end of the arm and Al’s going to be there to help guide this large box, about an eight hundred pound box, into rails that we can install it, bolt it down and get it hooked up correctly. So that’s the first big task. Al’s going to be using some special tools to vent this pump module because inside the pump module is some ammonia and, if on a future mission they need to bring this pump module home, for safety purposes they vent all the ammonia for that and so Al’s going to be working hard on getting that done.

Okay.

We also have a couple other tasks that Al and I will do together. We’re going to install a wedge on a camera stanchion, this long extension that has a camera on the end so that in the future when they bring up visiting vehicles, this camera stanchion will be out of the way. And after we complete that, we’re going to install this extension on the rails on which the mobile transporter moves and that allows this huge mobile transporter that goes up and down the front face of the space station to be a little bit farther out so if they have to replace some of the units on the far side of space station, they can move that mobile transporter all the way down. And a few other small tasks that we’ll do and bottom line is we’re just trying to put space station the best configuration prior to the retirement of the space shuttle.

And what is the current plan for EVA 2 then?

EVA 2, unlike on EVA 1 where Al and I were together most of the time, on EVA 2 we have very distinct and separate tasks. Al’s going to be working on getting this box prepared that we brought up on this large platform, taking off some multilayer insulation and working on some trouble shooting on some beams which are used to potentially stow a radiator in the future and some other tasks whereas I will be on the robotic arm, I’m going to move out to the very front of space station on Columbus, which is the European lab on space station, and then configure the robotic arm with a foot restraint, hop in that foot restraint and again Mike is going to fly me in a position to remove this large platform called an LWAPA and it has some scientific data in a box on this platform and our intention is to move that. Mike will fly me over to the payload bay and we’ll install that on a sidewalk here inside the payload bay. When I go out there, I’ll have a large bag that has some equipment in it to include a camera that I will install on the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator which is an extension for robotic arm that’s stowed on the outside of lab. So after Mike flies me out to the payload bay of the space shuttle, he’ll fly me to the SPDM and I’ll install this camera and I have one additional task out there to remove some multilayer installation on one of the boxes. After that he’ll fly me back to Columbus and I’ll undo all the things that I did to configure the arm, take off this foot restraint and put things in the right configuration. And if we have some more time at the end of the EVA we have a few additional tasks. We have some covers that we put on some of the cameras to protect the lenses and just a few other get-ahead tasks to really put the station in the best configuration.

Can you tell us real quickly about, you have something called Message in a Bottle?

We do have something called Message in a Bottle and it’s a Japanese piece of hardware and the intention here is to use this outside space station and all we want to do is open a valve and it’s kind of unique and a thoughtful sort of experiment the Japanese have designed where we’re just going to fill it with the vacuum of space and, and really I think it’s really just more to demonstrate that, “Hey, this is the vacuum of space” and clearly a vacuum is a vacuum whether it’s space or if it’s in a vacuum chamber here at NASA, but this is a little bit special, especially for the Japanese because it’s the, the vacuum of space, so we’ll do that, capture in pictures and provide that to the Japanese once we come home.

After your work on station is complete, you will undock from the station and for your preparation for the return trip back to earth. It might be one of the last opportunities for anybody to see the space station from that vantage point from the inside of a shuttle backing away. As you sit here today trying to imagine that moment, what do you think, how do you think that’s going to impact you?

I remember seeing space station as we undocked and moved away on STS-128 and one of the things that I realized, especially in retrospect from my time on space station was that there’re lots of very distinct memories that you carry away and one of those was seeing the space station as we moved away and recognizing that for all the hardship and hard work and effort that’s gone into building this is what the final result is, this tremendous international achievement and I think I’ll have that same sensation as we see space station now with a lot more components, one of which we’ve added on STS-133 and I think that everybody that’s involved in the space shuttle and space station program has a lot to be proud of. It’s just an unbelievable achievement. When you see this thing going around our planet, it’s like a flying city and you recognize that it’s not just the hardware but you have six people that are living in a place that ordinarily you can’t live. It’s a vacuum. It’s in space. It’s not something that is normal but any means and it’s something that’s been done through a lot of dedication, hard work over a couple of decades and so to me I think I’ll be thankful that we’ve been able to get our portion of the mission complete and thankful that so many people have put such great effort into making this happen.

This mission is currently scheduled to be one of the last space shuttle flights. What does it mean to you to have been part of the space shuttle program? It’s something that’s been or that is considered an institution by many people.

Even more than an institution, I would say that the space shuttle is an American icon and it represents the best that America has to offer. It combines long term planning, hard work and dedication, exceeding the capabilities that we ever thought it was able to do and great achievement in math and science and engineering. I think those are great American achievements and values and so every time I’ve been able to spend time around the space shuttle and the people that have built it and maintained it and worked with it and trained us on it it’s just a, it really makes me proud to be part of it. We just spent some time at a crew, an equipment interface test at Kennedy Space Center and the level of dedication of the people there to make this people perfect for every flight is just really awe inspiring and so I’m just happy to be of it and, to me, if I look back on the initial things that space shuttle was designed to do and that it accomplished and look at what we’re doing now, it’s just unbelievable to me. We started out with this vehicle that we put a few experiments in the back, and not to discount those early achievements because they were building blocks, but experiments in the back and very brief spacewalks to today where we’ve built an International Space Station largely on the back of the space shuttle and very complex spacewalks in order to complete that assembly along with robotic operations that involve two and sometimes three robotic arms, it’s a tremendous achievement. So I’m just proud to be a part of it.