News Stories

NASA astronaut chases childhood dream

By Army Spc. Amanda Ridder | Defense Information School | September 25, 2016

FORT MEADE, Md. --

In less than 10 seconds, the Russian Soyuz rocket will be launched 250 miles above Earth. You are focusing on the mission ahead instead of the potentially life-threatening injuries.

The countdown begins.

The engines roar. There’s no turning back. The world falls below your feet as you ascend into the surmountable darkness. Until this moment, this has only been a vision created from a childhood dream.

This vision became reality for Timothy L. Kopra, who visted the Defense Information School on Sept. 13 from 9-10 a.m.

Despite the few selected to be an astronaut for NASA, Kopra was chosen specifically based on his leadership and teamwork abilities. He participated in the first spacewalk aboard the Endeavour on Expedition 20 as a Flight Engineer.

Kopra’s inspiration to venture into space began at the age of six in Austin, Texas, where he witnessed the news broadcasting of the first astronauts to walk on the moon.

“My brother was particularly enthusiastic about it,” Kopra said. “I’d stay up at night watching some of the moon landings with him.”

As Kopra grew older, this childhood dream developed into a personal mission. In college at the Military Academy West Point, New York, he received a Bachelor of Science degree as well as mentorship from instructors. Bill McCarthur, a West Point instructor and astronaut for NASA, served as Kopra’s role model.

“He was instrumental in bringing me to NASA to work as an engineer,” Kopra said.   

While he continued his military education, Kopra’s pivotal moment to redirect his career in space travel occurred when three of the former Apollo astronauts, who were also West Point graduates, spoke about their experiences in space. Frank Borman was among the astronauts.

“That was a seminal moment,” Kopra said. “Then you could tell, ‘hey, this guy used to be in my seat.’”

Kopra’s childhood dream inched closer when he worked as a vehicle

integration test engineer at the Johnson Space Center. He spent two years in Astronaut Candidate Training and furthered his education in aerospace engineering.

Setting himself apart from the mass amount of applicants was a challenge he was determined to overcome. To become an astronaut, however, meant more than submitting a resume of impressive education and job experience.

“At the end of the day,” Kopra said, “The utmost quality is who you want to go camping with. You want people you can work with who are always looking out for the other guy.”

Nearly a decade later after working as a test engineer, Kopra’s dream became reality at last. He boarded the space shuttle Endeavour where he was assigned to mission STS-127.

“Once you get on board, you’re really focused on doing your job well,” he said. “You’re not worried about the hazard, because we have a lot of important things to do in those eight and a half minutes to get into space.”

Kopra’s perspective of how small the planet is literally changed.

“You get a sense of how isolated we are,” he said, referring to how far away everything is from Earth.

Kopra lived in unnatural conditions for 60 days; alas, there was no sign -of extraterrestrial existence. 

“They do a really good job of hiding,” Kopra joked.

Kopra returned to Earth on mission STS-128 aboard Discovery as a mission specialist, but this was not his final voyage into space.

In December 2015, Kopra and a small interntationally diverse crew embarked on Expedition 46 and 47 to the International Space Station,

While on board, the team conducted over 250 experiments collaboratively and individually. Each day consisted of waking up at 6 a.m. and going to bed by 11 p.m. The crew ate together during certain meals to manage the workload and team connection.

“Everything we do at NASA is about the team,” Kopra said, referring to “the small team on board and big team on the ground.”

After a day’s work and eating together, the crew occupied their spare time with photography and staying in touch with family. When Kopra wasn’t snapping photographs of cities below lit in the night, he maintained connection with his loved ones.

“The training is hard on everybody, for the family and the crewmember,” he said.

Although his time in space elicited unique experiences, Kopra and his family was excited for him to return home after 186 days in space.

“Coming home was radically different,” he said. “Instead of landing like an airplane, you get tossed around like a ragdoll. It’s like somebody designed an amusement park ride that would be on the edge of killing you.”

Just having landed back on Earth June 18, Kopra is having an easier time readjusting to life this second time around. The first time, though, was rough.

“It felt like a combination between a flu and hangover for about a day or two,” said the NASA astronaut.

To date, Kopra has logged 244 days, one hour, and one minute in space.

Passing along the dream to DINFOS students and staff, Kopra presented his experience with a video that illustrated their training and experiments in space.

After two DINFOS Air Force airmen from NASA suggested that an astronaut ought to be brought to the school, Jospeh Coslett, the Public Affairs officer at DINFOS, was inspired to organize the event.

“We thought, what a great idea it would be to teach the next generation of communicators about the difficulties and some challenges they face,” said Coslett about Kopra and the crew.

Coslett made the event happen by connecting with Nora Normandy, the Public Affairs Outreach officer from NASA headquarters.

“There’s a peak interest,” Normandy said. “It’s about when they come back to talk about their experience while it’s still fresh to them, and it’s exciting.”

Perhaps the peaking interest to discovering the mysteries beyond this world matches the same curiosity Kopra had as a child.

“People always ask the question about what changes your perspective looking down at the planet,” he said. “It’s what’s not there. You look out past Earth, and there is a lot of nothing. It is a long way to the next place. You get this real sense of how we are really isolated and alone. The earth itself is beautiful. This thin little atmosphere that engulfs the planet protects it. That’s all you got.”