News Stories

There and back again, an astronaut’s tale

By Army Cpl. Matthew Atwood | Defense Information School | September 21, 2016

FORT MEADE, Md. --

Driving on an interstate surrounded by a sea of bumper-to-bumper traffic, sitting in a congested subway with hundreds of strangers, or riding a bike alongside a busy road are all typical commuting options for millions of people worldwide going to and from work.

Timothy L. Kopra commutes to work by a means that is anything but typical. 

“There are certain events when you can hear a series of explosions as you’re going up – muffled explosions, like artillery in the distance,” said Kopra, an astronaut and the commander of NASA’s Expedition 47. “The ride home is a completely different story. It’s like someone designed an amusement park ride that would be like on the edge of killing you.” 

For Kopra, this is what traveling aboard a Soyuz rocket launched from Kazakhstan with the International Space Station as the ultimate destination is like.  This is his commute to work when assigned a mission to the ISS orbiting 250 miles above Earth’s surface. Kopra traveled to work via rocket ship twice in the last seven years.  

Kopra shared details of his most recent mission to space during a briefing to students and faculty of the Defense Information School, Fort Meade, Maryland, Sept. 13 as part of his post-flight tour.

Astronauts coming back from missions to ISS or shuttle missions are placed in a 180-day post-flight period, said Nora A.T. Normandy, a public affairs specialist with NASA.

“Their primary job is public outreach and communication, and we always bring them for a week to D.C.,” Normandy said.

Kopra’s involvement with Expedition 47 marked his second mission to space, but his briefing at DINFOS was his first time speaking at the facility, she said.

“During these post flights, they do a post-flight video or a crew video,” said Normandy. “Generally, there is a 15- to 20-minute version that covers early training, the launch, what they’re doing in flight and the return.”

Kopra showed the video while speaking to the crowd of around 50 people, detailing his most recent mission with NASA.

Kopra’s path to become an astronaut launched while he was still serving on active duty in the Army, a career that began after graduating from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Throughout the briefing, he repeatedly mentioned how his military experience influenced his work as an astronaut.

“I’m biased, but I think the Army is especially good at forming leaders,” said Kopra. “We do that through on-the-job experiences. We’re put in positions where we may not have the experience base, but you have to learn because you’re put in that environment.”

Kopra earned a Bronze Star Medal among many other awards that highlight his Army career, yet his concentration remains on mission before self.

“Your life is in peril during a launch, there’s no question,” said Kopra. “It’s not what you’re thinking about. What you’re thinking about is doing your job and not messing up. We have a lot of things to do.”

Joseph A. Coslett, the public affairs officer for DINFOS, was contacted by NASA’s public affairs office shortly after Expedition 47 returned to Earth on June 18.  Coslett said his response to the inquiry was, “Yes!, but yes,” as he tried to hold back his excitement for the opportunity.

Coslett said part of his job as the PAO is to screen candidates who are interested in speaking at DINFOS, the training site for many future Department of Defense public affairs and communication specialists.

Before referring the individual to higher command for approval to speak at DINFOS, Coslett asks himself if the students or instructors will appreciate the person coming out to talk.

“Does it enhance our training? As we saw today, I think it does,” he said. “We talked about leadership and overcoming challenges. We normally won’t get an astronaut through our doors, and for what he was able to share, I think it was very eye-opening.”

As a former Air Force officer, Coslett sees how military leadership traits contributed to Kopra’s success.

“Having had that basic knowledge of working in those tight-knit teams that he did in the Army, as I did in the Air Force, it just made him that much better of an astronaut,” said Coslett. “To me, his military career played a critical role in that he was able to relate back to the Army values and his experiences that molded him into the astronaut that he is today.”

Becoming an astronaut may not have transpired for Kopra had he not attended a dinner during his first year at the academy.

“The thing that I think was really instrumental in changing my attitude from a childhood dream into something that might be tangible was when I was at West Point as a plebe,” said Kopra. “There were three of the former Apollo astronauts, to include Frank Borman, who spoke at our dinner. That was actually a seminal moment. This guy used to be in my seat, and now he had done these really amazing things. That particular instant was a great motivator to work hard in school.”

After graduating from West Point, Kopra went on to serve in the Army as an aviation officer. He was deployed to Southwest Asia in 1990 to support Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. His proficiency as a helicopter pilot earned him the opportunity to attend the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, giving him the skillset necessary to eventually become a NASA astronaut.

As a father, war veteran and astronaut, Kopra has an expansive list of accomplishments. But his future endeavors remain uncertain.

“When folks get back from their mission, they spend the first six months just getting their bearings again and getting their life back in order,” said Kopra. “I’ll wait until then to figure out what the next step is.”

Getting to work every day for the next few months will not be by rocket for Kopra. Instead, his travel arrangements will be the task of NASA’s public affairs team as he continues his tour, Normandy said.