By Selynn Barbour — Contributing Writer | Photos Provided By NASA, The Hopkins Family, and Selynn Barbour
A special thank you to the NASA Media Resource Center for providing LO Profile exclusive approved use of ISS Expedition 37/38 Mission Images
Helping maneuver the mechanical and mankind through space and time.
The first humans who will walk on Mars are walking the Earth today, says the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA. Will one be Mike Hopkins from the Lake? Maybe, but if not his feet stepping onto the planet, Mike is helping provide the path there.
Mike, a native of Richland, Missouri, recently spent nearly six months aboard the International Space Station (ISS) working and living among crew members from various nations. Together, they maintained the spaceship, conducted experiments and conditioned. Mike even traversed into the void of space on two emergency walks to repair a critical system. He did all this while traveling 17,500 miles per hour and circling the earth every 90 minutes. Every minute he was filled with new experiences and utter exhilaration.
“The Earth is more beautiful than you can imagine,” Hopkins tells. “Everywhere you fly there’s something that takes your breath away. There are cloud formations over the oceans, dune patterns in the deserts, crops in the fields and snow in the mountains. At night there are auroras with beautiful lights.”
The light from his Soyuz rockets was viewed worldwide September 25, 2013 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. His wife Julie, their two sons, Ryan and Lucas, his mother Barbara, plus a dozen more family and friends traveled to Kazakhstan to witness him and two Expedition 37/38 Russian cosmonauts liftoff.
“The care and diligence to details by NASA made the trip both memorable and smooth,” shares Mike’s mother, Barbara Duffy of Camdenton. “A wonderful buffet was featured at the docking party along with many toasts. It was a special night of much camaraderie among the Russian and American families, astronauts and cosmonauts, NASA and Star City personnel,” she continues.
Concurrently here at the Lake, more of Mike’s family, friends and School of the Osage students packed the auditorium and cheered as Mike “Hoppy,” class of 1987, achieved his dream. Mike’s astronaut classmate, Scott Tingle, attended and narrated the long-awaited launch and answered questions.
Mike recalls his launch, “It was one of those unforgettable moments in life! It was very exciting! The training kicks in with procedures done in simulators. Consequently you feel comfortable. There is a little bit of ‘Oh, my gosh! I’m sitting on top of a rocket!’ There’s a little bit of relief too, of not getting replaced,” he continues. “I was really going to space! During lift-off you feel the pressure of the G-forces and the movements from rocket releases. Definitely it was exciting in micro-gravity!”
“The launch itself was very emotional for me,” his mother recalls. “I suppose it was because I had watched the Challenger accident so many years ago. It was such a relief to watch the final booster disengage, and know that they were safe from the rocket fuel.”
At the end of their fiery ascent the three joined the crew of another NASA astronaut, one Russian cosmonaut and one European Space Agency astronaut. Upcoming would be another rotation of three space sailors: one NASA (Rick Mastracchio), a Russian and one Japanese. Mike, or now “Hopper” and the crew worked from their five-minute interval timelines. They maintained ISS systems, monitored and performed more than 200 scientific experiments ranging from insect behavior and capillary flows to Department of Defense’s Spheres experiments. They conditioned so as not to lose muscle or bone mass, utilizing three specially designed machines 2½ hours every day.
The crew monitored their physical well-being, enabling scientists to learn about the effects of space on humans for future explorers. This included blood, ocular and spinal tests. It is common for eyes to change shape and the spine to grow an inch in space. Mike also took part in a protein experiment, examining the ratio between animal proteins and potassium, with outcomes being studied to mitigate bone loss while in space and on Earth through nutrition. In addition, Mike headlined the “Train Like Mike” and “Mission X” international fitness programs.
Live Q & A programs from space were another important activity. At Mike’s alma mater, School of the Osage students participated in one such event. “They asked great questions,” confirmed Mike. Osage’s high school principal Mike Williams agreed. “Mike is such a positive role model for our students! He decided what he wanted to do right here at Osage and made it happen. You can’t get a better example than that,” he beams.
Mike and NASA astronaut Mastracchio specifically answered questions about their two emergency spacewalks before Christmas. Together they replaced a degraded, 780-pound pump module that utilizes ammonia, cooling ½ of the electronic systems on the ISS. Mike held the refrigerator-size unit while at the end of the 55-foot robotic arm. “Seeing nothing between him and space (well, I knew there were tethers, but that didn’t help) did take my breath away,” his mother remembers.
“I was excited to go out,” Mike says, as he recalled being face-to-face with the universe. “I felt a ball of different emotions. The views of the Earth were absolutely stunning! You see the Earth uninhibited without the framework of windows. You see the Earth in all its glory. I was focused. It was a very rewarding and unique experience that will stick with me the rest of my life.” Their two EVA’s lasted more than 13 hours with 250-degree Fahrenheit temperature swings with each 90 minute orbit.
“It was a pretty tough job and it was great to have Mike as my partner,” Mastracchio explains. “A main concern was not to get ammonia on our suits and then carry it back into the ISS. Once inside, the ammonia could poison the crew. We were originally scheduled for four spacewalks but we worked efficiently out there.”
Teamwork was crucial. Working with them over their headsets was NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock at Mission Control, Johnson Space Center, Texas. “Mike is very strong both physically and mentally. He is so capable and disciplined. He thinks clearly under pressure and can discern noise to form actions,” Wheelock asserts. “Wheels” had completed a similar task on a previous mission and knows “every time you open the hatch there’s nothing but danger!” Mike agrees, “You are vulnerable.”
“Mike did a great job,” lauds Jerry Ross, retired NASA astronaut. “He successfully commanded his ability to switch out the cooling unit. It was work that was a necessity to repair and maintain the ISS to continue our presence in space.” Jerry is the most-launched NASA astronaut. He and his crew connected the original two ISS capsules in 1998. The ISS is now about the size of a football field including the end zones.
Mike enjoyed visiting about football and daily life with family and friends through emails, phone calls and a weekly video conference. Nightly he would read Bible scriptures, the Divergent series or other books. Mike especially enjoyed eating beef enchiladas and apricot cobbler plus his bonus foods of jerky, cheese and star mints. He documented his favorite places on Earth — the Lake included — with photographs and posted them on his Twitter feed.
He also recorded his unique experiences within a special keepsake, his father Ogle’s Marine flight log. Mike brought this special belonging with him into orbit as his Father had passed on before ever knowing Mike was accepted into astronaut training. Noteworthy events were: Mike being the first inside the Orbital Science’s Cygnus resupply ship; being able to smell how “distinct” space really smells when a visiting capsule arrives; capturing yet another $200 million resupply ship utilizing the robotic arm, then releasing it; the crew expanding to nine when a Russian Olympic torch was literally carried to new heights completing the longest relay in history.
“There were unscripted moments, like the full moon reflecting on Earth’s bodies of water, and an aurora that covered all the Earth in my field of vision,” he relives.
While Mike was working above, his family’s lives continued here on Earth. His handsome sons studied at their Houston schools, and played football and hockey. One son was learning how to drive. Julie, his lovely wife, was busier than ever parenting, being the head of the household and nurturing others as a school nurse. But Mike kept on top of their lives with communications. He and his crew mates even communicated publicly via New York City’s Times Square Jumbotron wishing everyone a Happy New Year!
It was a happy new year for Mike’s mother, as she knew her son was fulfilling his lifelong dream. Barbara kept busy with a special project of her own, a quilt displaying Mike’s journey from the Lake to the luminous. One quilt panel actually flew with Mike in space and was signed by his crewmates. This unique memento was a memory saved as Mike’s mission was winding down.
With red roses in his hand for his wife, Mike reunited March 10, 2014, with her, their two boys, mother, family and friends with his trademark smile, hugs and joy after spending 166 days in space, completing 2,656 orbits of the Earth and traveling more than 70 million miles.
“It was a pretty quick return,” Mike explains. “It was very exciting and more dramatic coming home. I experienced five G’s and the bright light of plasma through the window. It was bouncy. As we got closer to Earth, I felt the parachutes open, swinging back and forth, turning for 25-30 seconds, then stable. Next, the landing rockets simultaneously fired with a firm touchdown in the snow in Kazakhstan. The first breath of air was wonderful, nice and cool. It was about -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Within a few minutes I was talking with Julie and the boys. I felt an amazing sense of accomplishment, helping to be responsible for the ISS for nearly six months,” he concludes.
Conclusions were literally drawn from his body back on Earth for medical purposes. His memory was utilized for ISS systems debriefings. His physical reconditioning ensued, although he hadn’t lost much strength or displayed much bone loss. Mike has shared his unique story with many others throughout the country with educational outreach opportunities. He even answered Camdenton’s LASER robotics students’ questions during his first day of interviews. Honorably, he delivered the commencement speech at the University of Illinois stressing education and perseverance. Walking his talk, until he’s assigned once again, Mike will train and maintain his own certifications plus empower other NASA astronauts for their missions.
“The line is long and I’m at the back of it,” Mike states, surmising when he might fly again. He is greatly appreciative of his amazing opportunity and hopes in another three to four years to be selected again. Astronaut Mastracchio concurs. An upcoming bonus is that more American astronauts might be able to fly each year to the ISS, launching from United States soil. Recently, two American companies have contracted with NASA to provide human shuttle services. Plus, with the Orion program, NASA plans to send humans farther into space to perhaps an asteroid or Mars. Mike’s astronaut class was uniquely selected based upon the plausibility of long-duration space flight. Mike recently visited the Orion capsule and rocket configuration at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, before its first test launch in December.
At this human launch facility, a historical IMAX presentation declares the existence of 100-110 billion galaxies in the universe. Earth’s Milky Way galaxy is but a drop in the ocean of space. Originating from the waters of the Lake, Mike has flown where few humans have flown and far fewer have walked. With his devout talents and unwavering commitment he is helping discover our place in space.
“I feel very good contributing to the space program,” Mike summarizes. “We as individuals have dreams, but what matters is the collective mission. From the ISS there are no borders. We’re all a part of this one precious planet. It’s important to take care of it.”
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