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Preflight Interview: Tim Kopra
05.06.09
JSC2009-E-049943 -- Timothy Kopra

Astronaut Tim Kopra, Expedition 20 flight engineer, takes a break from training in Star City, Russia to pose for a portrait. Photo credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

Q: Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you end up a professional space traveler. What was it that motivated you, or inspired you, to become an astronaut?

A: You know, when I was about, six years old, that was the time frame in which, our country was landing men on the moon, and I think when I was a kid every child wanted to be either an astronaut, a fireman, a policeman, the standard kinds of jobs that little kids, dream about doing. But within that category, for my era, it was astronaut. It was, that was the ultimate job and I think I was even more enthused by that because I had a, an older brother who was a complete space nut: he built all the models, we stayed up late together watching the moon landings, and I, I was infected with this enthusiasm for space as a, as a young child. But what’s interesting as you get older, sometimes you forget about those childhood dreams and, when I went off to West Point we had a dinner one time where former West Pointers had come and had spoken, to the Corps of Cadets about their experience in space, and there was an interesting connection between this childhood dream and the reality that these, these older men were able to accomplish, and to me it, it re-enthused me in terms of that being a goal, and I continued to pursue it beyond my time at West Point and, and I was fortunate enough to be selected.

So it almost was a, a, a new ambition reborn when you were in college?

That’s probably a good way to put it, because I’d always thought about that but it wasn’t something that was real. It was something that was, you see on TV or that someone else could do, but it really brought it together when I saw these guys come and talk to us and they were normal guys who had worked real hard and had been able to achieve that goal.

Let me take you back to six years old or, or so; tell me about your hometown, Austin, Texas, [the] place where you grew up.

Well, I love Austin, Texas. It’s a great town. It’s about twice the size now as it was when I was a kid but it still has maintained a lot of the same character. It, it’s in the rolling hills of central Texas, has a, a beautiful river that goes through, the middle of the town, and, I think that, like a lot of Texas, the people there are very friendly and open. It’s a college town so it has sort of a youthful atmosphere. I think it’s, it was a great place to grow up.

Do you have a sense of how that place and the people there helped contribute to make you the person that you are?

Well, Austin is such a safe town, both then and even now, that, it wasn’t uncommon for myself or, or my friends to, ride our bicycles all the way across town, to meet each other, to go down to Zilker Park or Barton Springs to go swimming, and so I think in large measure Austin contributed to a sense of independence and adventure because I kind of felt like the whole town was mine. I could do anything I wanted to do. But, probably even more importantly than the town itself were the people that I came in contact with my, my teachers and the people that I respected that had just a tremendous influence on me.

You already mentioned that you, that you went to West Point. Tell me, tell us about, the thumbnail sketch, if you will, of your education, how you got to West Point, your education and your professional career.

Oh, sure. Well, I graduated from McCall High School in Austin and, and after high school I was able to get into West Point, which was a very exciting experience but challenging four years, and after West Point I was commissioned in the Army as an officer and so I had pretty standard military jobs when we were stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. And then after I was in the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, I went off and learned how to fly Apache helicopters and about the same time, my wife, Dawn, and I were married and, and took her to Germany with me, and then I left her in Germany and went off to Desert Shield and Desert Storm for about six months. After we completed some more work within Germany—I was a company commander and I had a few other jobs in my units in Germany—I went off to graduate school at Georgia Tech, lived there for a couple years, went to Navy Test Pilot School, and after serving as a test pilot for a while, I came to work here at NASA.

Now, you didn’t come to work at NASA first as an astronaut, right?

No, I didn’t. I worked as a, as an engineer on space station for about two years, and it was a great experience because it was different than being a test pilot, where you learn this connection between the operational world and the technical world, but it was still applicable to space station, so it was my introduction to space station hardware. So, one of the, the side benefits, personally, for me, to being on space station is the fact that I’ll be able to see all this hardware that I’d worked on ten years ago, and, and see it actually being implemented as part of our space station.

When you were first assigned here, did you come here then with the idea that you were going to try to become an astronaut?

Oh, absolutely. In fact, that was my goal; that was part of this continuation of what I saw as, as, at least a potential path to being selected as an astronaut.

And, in fairly short order then you, you were.

I was very fortunate. I worked here for about a year and a half and, and was selected, so I was here for, I guess, a short period of time and, and went through the interview process and, and then was selected and became part of the 2000 class.

And now you’re in a career, flying in space, that we know can be dangerous. What is it that you think we get as result of flying people in space that makes that risk worthwhile?

Well, one of the things that’s inherent with, with a space program—not just ours but every nation’s space program—is the fact that you have to challenge yourself in the areas of science, technology, and engineering in order to achieve those goals, and I think by the very nature of those challenges, it brings out the best, both in ourselves and, and, collectively, and, it makes it worth the challenge.

You’re a flight engineer on the next expedition to the International Space Station. Tim, would you summarize the goals of your flight and what your main responsibilities in orbit are going to be.

Well, first of all I think it’s going to be a very exciting time because I’m really part of two shuttle missions and one expedition. So I fly up with STS-127, which brings up components for space station and also new capability, and then on, Expedition 20 I’ll serve as a crew member, as part of that crew, and we have a variety of things that we’ll be doing during my stay, and then I come home on STS-128, and during that time they’ll bring up a logistics module that will also increase the capability of space station.

Now of course, this is your first trip to space and an extended one at that. What are you looking forward to about spending two or three months off of the planet?

Well, what’s interesting about the last several years, for my training in particular, is that I’ve been training towards this specific mission for a very long period of time, and so really I think the most exciting part is being able to use the things that I’ve been working towards for a very long period of time. Once I’m there I’m looking very forward to doing a spacewalk with the STS-127 crew and being able to spend time in space with, my, my crewmates and friends that are part of Expedition 20, and that’ll be a very exciting time because what we’re doing as crew members on that mission is expanding our knowledge of what it means to live in space and, and the effect of, microgravity on, on the human body. And then on STS-128, because I’ll be able to work with them as well, we have a very exciting mission to increase the capability of station. So I guess, in general, the thing that I’m excited about is being able to fulfill the last several years of training and to do my small part to help out the, advancement of science and space exploration.

Let me get you to talk about it in smaller chunks then.

Yeah.

Let’s start with the goal of the, the joint mission that delivers you to the space station, STS-127. What are the goals of that flight?

This is a very complex mission, and I know that every shuttle crew says that theirs is a very complex mission, which is true, but I can tell you that ours is complex from the standpoint that we have five spacewalks, five EVAs, we’ll be using the robotic arm that’s on space shuttle, the one on space station and the, the Japanese robotic arm. So the very first thing that we do when we get on board is we prepare all the equipment inside the payload bay of the space shuttle to be removed robotically and then installed on board. We have an Exposed Facility which attaches on to the Japanese lab, and that will be the facility that houses several new experiments. Three of those experiments come up on a pallet that’s also in the payload bay, so that will be attached onto this Exposed Facility, and then robotically those will be moved onto the Exposed Facility, and then we have a third pallet that has new batteries for on board and new replacement units in case things were to break on board space station. So within a couple weeks we will have added a new Exposed Facility, we will have used this pallet that will be used to transfer three experiments onto the Exposed Facility, and then we have another pallet that will expand our capability in terms of, power, power from the batteries, and then also those replacement units.

JSC2009-E-049920 -- Timothy Kopra

Astronaut Tim Kopra, Expedition 20 flight engineer, attired in a Russian Sokol launch and entry suit, takes a break from training in Star City, Russia to pose for a portrait. Photo credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

And the ability to work with payloads outside, in this particular case, also allows you to move those payloads inside the station from the Japanese, from the Japanese lab.

That’s true. The Japanese module, the Japanese lab, is a really fascinating piece of space hardware. Astronauts, I think, are, are more attuned to being excited about hardware, especially space hardware, but I think everybody could be, and the thing that I think is really neat about that Japanese lab is that we have a smaller airlock in which you can bring experiments from outside, to the inside or vice versa. So, during our mission we won’t use that capability, but in the future it’s a very interesting and capable piece of hardware.

Now, you’re going to be one of the spacewalkers during the first of the five spacewalks during STS-127. Tell me about the work that you and David Wolf are going to be doing outside.

Well, we dock on Flight Day 3, and then Flight Day 4 we go outside so it’s going to be a very quick turn from sitting in, in, quarantine on the Earth and going outside and looking down through the airlock as the planet goes underneath you at 17,500 miles an hour. So it’s going to be a pretty quick transition, but the very first thing that we do is go outside and prepare for those payloads to be removed from the payload bay. My job will be working in that payload bay so that we can get those ready. I disconnect some power connectors that supply power to them while they’re still in the payload bay before we move them robotically, and remove some covers. And then after that we have several pieces of space station that need to be configured for future work or preparation for the additional four spacewalks that we have on STS-127. And, one thing that probably is, is not clear to a lot of folks is that we have very specific mission objectives that start out from the very beginning of our mission, but there’s also a lot of, changes that occur as we go through our training so even at this point, ten weeks prior to launch, we still have a lot of things that need to be defined with respect to what we’ll do on that very first spacewalk, so we have a few more training sessions to get those hammered out and, and worked out so we know what to do when we do our spacewalk.

Nevertheless, I imagine you’re probably pretty excited about getting to make a spacewalk.

Oh, I’m really excited. It’s going to be great. Both doing the spacewalk and being able to work the robotic arms on space station are very exciting components of our mission for, for astronauts, and I think that’s going to be quite an event.

As you join the International Space Station crew it will already be composed of six people and [a] pretty historic nature: we have Americans, Russians, a European and, for the first time ever, a Canadian astronaut…

Uh huh.

…as a permanent, space station crew member. Talk about your feelings about that, this evolution, or this, this next step for the space station.

You know, from a personal standpoint, it’s almost transparent because we train for a very long period of time and we train some together as a crew but it’s a little bit different in training, from what I’ve done with my shuttle crew, because for a shuttle crew you take these seven people and they train together for a year, or maybe longer, and those, seven people do their mission and come back home. But for space station, because it’s an international crew and we have very diverse requirements for our training, we spend, lots of time in Japan, Germany, Canada, Russia and the States, and oftentimes we don’t see each other for maybe a month or two at a time, but once we do gather, either in Russia or in the States, we spend time together both in training and, in our personal time to get to know each other, so that international component, because the fact that all of us have traveled so much to different locations, I think that will be really transparent. But I think, from a bigger picture and in terms of what we’re doing with space station, I think it’s a huge advancement and I think it really speaks to one of the great successes of the International Space Station, that is for all these different countries and cultures and peoples to work together successfully.

Does it, does it create new issues in terms of, of working on board the station with a larger crew? There’s a lot of experience now with a crew of three people…

Uh huh.

…for extended periods of time, but are there issues with just scheduling, facilities, communications that you guys have to work out?

You know, we’re going to find out, and I think what we’ll find is that it is more challenging. It will be much more challenging, I think, for the ground to get things worked, worked out than it will be for the crew because they’re the ones who really have to do the hard work and that is, de-conflicting these six people and their tasks. There are plenty of tasks to do on board, but making that work in a coherent plan so that everybody is in the right place and getting things done in a timely manner will really be, a lot of emphasis for the ground. Communication, I think, will be more challenging, specifically for the crew, because if you only have three people talking to the ground and talking to these control centers, that’s a little bit easier than six people trying to get a word in to, to describe exactly what their, their concerns are or to get answers to questions. But I think what we’ll end up doing is we’ll, we’ll drive towards all the different ways we have to communicate, and we have computers on board in which we can translate information, so even though we just have limited communication assets, there are other ways for us to get our information, down to the ground and to get answers back, and I think what we’ll end up doing is, is using all those to their full extent.

As a member of the space station crew, after the shuttle’s gone and, and you’re in what’s referred to as the, your “stage”…

Right.

… what, a lot of the work that you guys do is maintaining the station and getting it ready for what’s going to happen next, and you guys are going to be rearranging some modules early on in, in your time. Tell me why we’re moving Pressurized Mating Adapter 3 from one port on Unity to another, and what, what’s required to make that happen.

Well, these Pressurized Mating Adapters allow us to connect, other, vehicles onto space station, and actually what we’re going to use PMA-3 for, during our mission, is really just to check out the port where we will attach a new node to space station later on downstream—I think, STS-130 will be the, the guys who bring up this new capability. In fact, there’ll be a lot of rearrangement once that module comes up, and since it’s so critical for them to be able to attach that on to one of our nodes, one of our connecting pieces, we’re going to use that PMA, that Pressurized Mating Adapter, to check out those interfaces just to confirm that when they do bring that up, everything works like it’s supposed to.

So what is, what, talk me through what it, how you’re going to do that.

Uh huh. Well, this will be interesting because a lot of the work will be done by the ground. We have this robotic arm on space station which we’ll use to, remove this Pressurized Mating Adapter, but once the crew does that the, the operations that are very close to the vehicle, the ones we really want to have the crew involved, once we’re complete with that work, the ground is going to use the robotic arm to move it to the next position and then we’ll bring the crew back in and the crew will go ahead and attach it. So it’s going to be a really interesting time to see this coordination between the ground capability and the crew’s capability.

Your crew’s also going to be working to get ready for the arrival of a couple of other new components for the station that are, are due this year, but both of which are, are scheduled after you’ve left.

Right.

Tell me about the new Russian Mini Research Module and what new capability that’s going to bring.

The MRM is, essentially a docking port and people probably don’t realize it but at certain points in time space station’s a little bit like an airport terminal because you’re bringing up vehicles all the time, so even while I’m there we will, we will move the Soyuz that, Mike [Barratt] and Gennady [Padalka] fly up on to a different location on space station to free up a port on the back side of space station, and when the expedition crew members who come up on the Soyuz with Frank De Winne and Roman Romanenko and Bob Thirsk, they’ll dock to another port. And we bring up a Progress while we’re there to provide resupply, so all these different movements are going on in which we bring up crew members, we move vehicles, we bring in supply vehicles, so this MRM, MRM is very critical because what it does for us is give us another port and more capability for us to, to work with that vehicle traffic.

Also later this year the first-ever Japanese cargo vehicle, the H-II Transfer Vehicle, is due; September, currently. Talk about that vehicle and what it will add to the station’s operation.

We’re very excited about the capability of this transport vehicle, this HTV, and I’m, I’m very confident the Japanese and JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] are very excited as well because this is their very first vehicle, like this, and so not only is it exciting from the standpoint that, it’s a new vehicle that they’re going to fly but also it’s going to expand our capability because with a six-person crew we need a lot more resources on board, and what that HTV will do for us is bring a lot more of those resources. It can bring food and equipment, water and even external hardware that will be attached on to the Exposed Facility that we bring up on STS-127. One thing that’s also unique about the HTV is that it flies close to station, and then we use the robotic arm on space station to grab it and then attach it on to space station. So it’s all new stuff and it’s going to be an exciting time to see it happen.

This, the, the berthing of it that you described, that’s because it doesn’t, it doesn’t have a, a docking mechanism of its own.

That’s right. So, we’re used to the Russian Progress vehicles, which autonomously attach onto space station and then have a backup capability, and now we’re used to the ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], which is a resupply vehicle which autonomously connects to space station, but this one is unique in that it’s really the crew that will be attaching it onto space station.

One other thing about the HTV that’s new is that it has, it carries both pressurized and unpressurized cargo.

Right. Well, it’s very, very interesting so, this Exposed Facility that we have on STS-127 that gets attached on to the Japanese lab, we bring up three experiments and then we’ll expand that with a fourth experiment that comes up on HTV.

So, you’ve got a lot of work going on inside to get ready for this kind of building that’s going to…

Right.

…continue later in the year. A lot of work goes on inside during the time that you’re up there, too; science research, and a lot of it these days is looking into how people can live and work safely when they spend an extended period of time in a weightless environment.

Uh huh.

Tell me about some of the experiments in, in human life sciences that you’ll be working on during Expedition 20.

You know, the, the science that we’ll do that is about human physiology, is, probably the most interesting from the standpoint that we’re directly involved: it’s going to be our blood samples and it’s going to be our hearts that are being examined with ultrasound. So it’s interesting, I think, from the standpoint that, we’re going to look at all the different components that correspond to the human body and the effect that microgravity has on us, and it’s very critical because, if we’re going to spend time on the moon, which is less gravity than the Earth, or transporting to Mars, which could be a very long trip and then time on Mars, we need to understand with a lot of detail what those effects will be. So we’ll be looking at, at the cardiovascular system, neurological system, vestibular system, and we’ll also be looking at some of the behavioral aspects of living in space. What happens to your sleep, for example: can you sleep soundly, because over time you definitely need to have sound sleep to be an effective crew member. Those are some of the examples of the things we’ll be looking at that correspond to the, the human physiology side.

But there are a lot of other scientific disciplines that have research going on in now the several laboratories on board the International Space Station. Tell me about some of the other kinds of science experiments that you’ll be working on.

Well, it’s interesting to me is that, there’s a lot of capability that’s been brought up from European Space Agency, from the Russians, the Japanese space agency as well as ours, so in the Japanese module, for example, we have a, a, physics, physical science rack and a life sciences rack. And when I say a “rack,” it’s the means by which we package these experiments: they’re about the size of a refrigerator, and they have the standard interface that we can place these in, in the different modules and then execute science. So, that’s a Japanese capability, and then on the U.S. side, when I’m coming home, we’ll be bringing up some more experiments, experiment racks. We’ll bring up a, a, fluid science rack and a material science rack, and so the reason that we’re doing this is that microgravity gives us an opportunity to look at aspects of basic science that you just don’t have the ability to look at on the ground. You know, with material science there are basic differences with zero gravity or microgravity that you don’t have on Earth such as sedimentation and convection, that you don’t have in space, and it gives us the ability to look into properties and materials that you just can’t do on the ground. And then fluid sciences, for example, things behave differently in space, and if we can understand some of these fundamental differences, that become more clear from the zero gravity environment, I think it’ll help us in a lot of things in terms of the effect of, of, thermal dynamics on, on materials and how do we store propulsive fluids, or lots of different things that I think will have direct applicability on the ground.

The next space shuttle that visits the International Space Station is the one that is going to bring you back to Earth.

Uh huh.

Talk about the goals of the joint operations with STS-128.

They also have a very complex mission, and what they will be doing is bringing up a multipurpose logistics module. It’s a large canister. It’s about the size of the other modules on space station, and within that are several racks, these, these compartments that fit into different areas in the various labs on space station, and so the first objective will be to take that MPLM, that logistics module, and connect it onto space station, and then a lot of the time will be spent transferring those items and installing them on, on space station. So, we add a new crew quarters onto space station, we’ll have a new treadmill which is very key and didn’t mention it before but part of that, that experimentation with our own physiology is trying to mitigate what we’ve already learned about from the effects of zero gravity, and that is that in zero gravity there tends to be a decrease in bone density and muscle mass, and so it’s absolutely critical that we spend a lot of time exercising so that we can maintain that bone density and muscle mass. So this T2, this new treadmill, will provide additional capability so that we can support that crew of six. We also have that fluid science rack and a material science rack that we’ll bring on board, and also a, a, a big freezer so that when we collect different samples on board we can put it inside the freezer and keep those samples until we return them to Earth on a shuttle mission.

It’s a lot of work, shuttle missions up and down…

Absolutely.

…as well as the, the time that you are going to be there between the two shuttle missions. Despite all the work, do you expect to have a lot of fun?

I expect to have a lot of fun. I, in fact I just spoke with the crew members on board recently, couple days ago, and after they had only been there for a couple weeks, you could tell that they’re just real excited about all the work that they do on board so just, if you talk to a kid about what they would like to do on space station, they might tell you, hey, I want to float around, I want to look out the window. I intend to do a lot of both of those just as my crew members like to do, and, what’s very common among crew members is to pick up the hobby of photography, because I don’t think you have a better view of any other place than from the space station.

You’re going to be part of a major milestone in human space exploration in getting this planet’s space station, crew operating with a larger and a more multinational crew than it’s ever had before. Tim, tell me how you see human exploration of space proceeding in the years to come, and what role the, the International Space Station is going to be playing in preparing us for that.

The space station is probably the most complex piece of hardware that’s ever been built, and I would say, I think it’s fair to say that it is the most complex. To build something in space is, it’s unprecedented, and it’s been done in baby steps before but this is by far the most complex operation that we’ve ever done from a, a technology and, and construction standpoint. And one thing that we’ve learned, I think, from our experiences to date—because all these things are really evolutionary, we learn a little bit at a time and we get better and, especially when we make mistakes, we learn from those mistakes and we improve—and one of the, I think, the, the lessons, specifically from ISS, is that each contributor from a different nation has strengths that we can really multiply by bringing together, to do our next missions. So I really hope that when we continue to go to the moon and we, we do other manned, or human space flight operations, and we eventually go to Mars, that we, we take advantage of the fact that we have all these different nations that have great capabilities and we combine them in such a manner that allows us to go forward and be that much more successful.