Former Illini Hopkins Prepared for First Space Trip
Aug. 3, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
After fulfilling his dream of becoming a NASA astronaut in 2009, former Illini football captain Michael (Mike) Hopkins is getting his first chance in space only four years after being named an astronaut. Hopkins is the first from his 2009 class of 14 members to be invited on a mission. Expedition 37/38 is scheduled to fly out of Russia in September to the International Space Center and returns in March 2014.
"That only means I'm the first, it doesn't mean I'm the best," Hopkins said modestly.
Hopkins has had his eye on the skies since high school, and working toward achieving his goal has taken a lot of steps and patience. Finally achieving his lifelong dream hasn't fully hit the former Illinois defensive back.
"You get called into the chief of the astronauts' office," Hopkins said. "And they say `Hey, we want to assign you to this expedition.' I would have said that there couldn't be a better feeling than when I got that phone call to say, `we want you to come to Houston and become an astronaut,' but it actually was a better feeling when I got called into the office and she said, `Mike, I want to assign you to expedition 37 and 38. Would you like to go?' That was just an incredible feeling. I think that brought it one step closer to reality. I'm still not there yet until we depart."
Expedition 37/38 will be in orbit for nearly six months, during which the crew - Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Expedition 37 flight engineer and Expedition 38 commander; along with Hopkins and Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, both Expedition 37/38 flight engineers - will be checking to make sure the station is in good condition, and also for the Russian segment, to install the new MLM (Multipurpose Laboratory Module.) A variety of biological experiments will also take place on board.
"I'm very excited about waking up one morning and thinking, `Holy smokes, I'm in space,'" the Richland, Mo., native said.
Hopkins' drive and passion got him into the game at Illinois. An aerospace engineering major, he also joined a fraternity, Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) and became an active athlete on campus.
"First thing that had a huge impact on my life is, I met my wife there [at Illinois] and she has been a huge part of this adventure I've been on," Hopkins said.
The father of two is grateful for his support system at home, but his support on the field had just as much of an influence on his future at NASA.
"Now, I'll admit at the time I just wanted to play football, and I wanted to play football at Illinois, and I got that opportunity," Hopkins said. "It was some of the best years of my life and I absolutely loved it. I love the excitement, the energy, the incredible group of people that you get to play ball with, it was a fantastic experience. As my career has progressed into the Air Force and now here at NASA, you look back on that and you realize - for me - how important that was to getting here, to being a part of NASA."
Hopkins played under two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year John Mackovic and, although Hopkins is doing something drastically different than football, he's found that similarities between his past and present are more common than he thought they would be.
"The little things that you don't think about at the time of playing football," Hopkins said. "The being a part of a team, and working through when things are tough, when your guys are struggling in practice and you're down and you've had a rough game and [it] didn't quite come out the right way. Working through all of those things as a group and figuring out what the next step is. Invaluable lessons that have just played a huge impact on my training here at NASA because all of a sudden, now you're a six-person crew and you're in an emergency situation trainer, or something like that, and you realize, `Hey, I've kind of been here before.' It looks a little bit different; no one's trying to tackle or hit me or anything, but there are some similarities there."
Hopkins got the opportunity to step back onto the field as an honorary captain in 2010 when Illinois defeated Baylor in the Texas Bowl in Houston. He was named an honorary captain with fellow Illini, former hockey player and retired NASA astronaut Lee Archambault.
"It was absolutely fantastic," Hopkins said. "We got the opportunity to meet the coach, Coach Zook, and he actually came down and spent time here with us at JSC (Johnson Space Center), which was great. We got to watch some of the practices and got the experience of stepping out onto the field, and it's been awhile since I've stepped on a field like that. It brought back a lot of great memories. It was a wonderful experience, one I truly cherished and am certainly thankful for."
Unfortunately, due to his busy schedule, Hopkins hasn't been able to stay in touch with his teammates and coaches as much as he would like. Two years ago, Illinois hosted a reunion at the spring game for the class of 1991 football players.
"That was a great experience," Hopkins said. "It was wonderful to see a lot of my teammates, and I was really - I don't want to say blown away - but really impressed by a lot of the team: physicians, and of course there's Howard Griffith out there that's on the TV all the time. There are guys doing research, Ph.D.'s that are still there (at Illinois). I was quite impressed with my teammates."
During this year's football season, Hopkins will be on his mission, but he plans to cheer on the Orange and Blue from the shuttle.
"One of the great things we have when we're up on station is the support office," Hopkins said. "They just do a fantastic job of helping us make life a little more normal while we're up there and so we're able to request TV shows or anything like that, so of course I've requested to make sure I have all of the games. So I may not get it live, but rest assured I'll certainly be watching every game."
Hopkins has been active since early childhood, and is a big supporter of NASA's Fit Explorer: Train Like an Astronaut program. The program encourages kids to get out and increase physical fitness in their lives. It's supposed to "get them excited about fitness and excited about space," Hopkins said.
Hopkins exercises a couple hours a day on site with a team of trainers, and plans to maintain his routine while in space. His "Train like Mike" program will follow him throughout his mission, and either Mike or his trainers will have videos and updates at least weekly. The campaign shows the importance of exercise and nutrition throughout the mission, and most importantly after the mission, which is when the most critical rehabilitation, strength and conditioning training occur.
"It's hard to put into words what it's like here," Hopkins said. "Obviously, this is something I'm very passionate about and one of the ways I describe it is, I just feel like home here. I feel like this is where I was meant to be, the job that I was meant to do and I feel very blessed that I'm getting the opportunity to do it. Every day is different, incredible and amazing and fun, so it's just been a wonderful experience."
Until his departure at the end of September, Hopkins will continue his prep work and kick off his "Train like Mike" campaign. But he has a lot to do before he gets his first taste of space, "I expect the reality will hit about the time when the countdown hits zero, and the rocket lights and we start to go."
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