Former Illini to Tackle New Frontier as NASA Astronaut
June 30, 2009
By Matt Wille, Illinois Sports Information
Former University of Illinois football player Michael Hopkins realized his life goal when he was a junior in high school: to become an astronaut. Eighteen years after graduating from the Urbana-Champaign campus with an aerospace engineering degree, his out-of-this-world dream became a reality. After reviewing more than 3,500 applications, NASA selected nine people for the 2009 astronaut candidate class and the former Illini football standout made the cut.
"This was the moment that I had been working toward since high school and it was hard to believe it had arrived," said Hopkins in a NASA feature article. "When (Col. Steve Lindsey) asked if I wanted to change jobs and move to Houston, I was flooded with emotions: overwhelmed, shocked, thrilled, excited, humbled and thankful. My next reaction was that I needed to call my wife, who has been my biggest supporter as I've pursued this lifelong dream."
The Richland, Mo., native was inspired by the early successes of the Space Shuttle program and used the University of Illinois as a stepping-stone to his ultimate goal. The four-year letter winner (1988-91) played defensive back under John Mackovic, the two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, and earned the squad's Special Teams Player of the Year award in 1989. His collegiate accomplishments translated into success off the field after he garnered nearly every academic award available.
Hopkins was a first-team Academic All-American, a three-time first-team Academic All-Big Ten selection, a George Huff Award winner, an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship winner and a recipient of the 1992 Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor, awarded to the student demonstrating proficiency in scholarship and academics at each conference institution. In 1989, he won the team's scholar-athlete award, but the best award to describe Hopkins came in 1990. After his junior season, the defensive back received Illinois' Bruce Capel Award, symbolic of the player who displays the greatest courage and determination.
Each step Hopkins took to attain his goal displayed his determination and fortitude. After Illinois, he pursued his postgraduate degree from Stanford, completed his private pilot's license, learned how to scuba dive and attended the USAF Test Pilot School as a flight test engineer. He currently is a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force and serves as special assistant to the Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Pentagon.
Hopkins is the fifth Illinois graduate to earn this prestigious honor, joining fellow notable Illinois alumni Scott Altman, Lee Archambault, Steve Nagel and Joe Tanner as NASA astronauts.