College Football Helped Hopkins Prepare for Spacewalk

Astronaut Mike Hopkins works outside the International Space Station during a spacewalk on Christmas Eve.
Astronaut Mike Hopkins works outside the International Space Station during a spacewalk on Christmas Eve.

Dec. 27, 2013

VIDEO: Hopkins Conducts Second Spacewalk to Fix Coolant Pump on ISS | Follow @AstroIllini

By Sally Jenkins, The Washington Post

That evasive, poorly defined phrase "bringing your `A' game" gets thrown around a lot, chattered about senselessly by all kinds of emotionally chaotic athletes, only some of whom have any idea how to bring it, much less twice in a row.

Mike Hopkins knows how. Hopkins doesn't play football in 100,000-seat stadiums anymore. He belongs to a different class of doer now, and he understands more about practical, technical, repetitive excellence than he ever did as a player. Like the kind he delivered up in space this week. If you really want to learn performance under pressure, study an astronaut.

The dogging question for any athlete is whether they translate in the actual world -- how would they do in a situation that actually meant something? Hopkins, former captain of the University of Illinois football team, won't ever be troubled by that query. He doesn't have to ask whether he can be usefully imported to another field, because for the past week he has been repairing the International Space Station. The job requires him to hit mental and physical peaks, both at the very same time, because to replace a broken 780-pound cooling system while dangling 260 miles above Earth takes more than just a mechanical mind -- you'll notice we don't just shoot pencil-necked engineers into space. Hopkins works out 21 / 2 hours a day, even in space, and can do reverse push-ups from a handstand.

When Hopkins and partner Rick Mastracchio "suited up" on Christmas Eve, it was by donning 260-pound rigs, which take 45 minutes just to put on, one of which almost killed an Italian astronaut in July when a malfunction caused it to fill up with water. Hopkins then crawled outside the station at the end of a tether, hung upside down in feet clamps at the end of a robotic arm, allowed himself to be swung through space swaying like a kite on a string and did several hours of delicate mechanical work with a hand drill and other tools. To call it the most spectacular high-pressure athletic feat of the week in all of the known universe is hardly a stretch.

Col. Bob Behnken, a veteran spacewalker who is NASA's chief of the Astronaut Office, says what Hopkins did was like "a biathlete trying to race from point A to point B and then stopping and getting a gunshot off at a small target," except he did it over and over with much higher consequences.

That Hopkins was chosen for such duty is not surprising to people who remember him at Illinois, where he was a walk-on in 1989 but won a scholarship by flying through the air at high speeds on special teams kickoff and punt coverage. By his senior year he was a preseason all-American at safety.

"You can't be a great special teams player unless you got nerve," said his former defensive coordinator Lou Tepper, who's now at Buffalo.

Sportswriter Will Leitch, an alum and lifelong Illini fan, recalls that Hopkins was a cult icon.

"Not necessarily the most talented but the one who worked harder than everyone else and everybody loved him," Leitch said. "Everybody knew Mike Hopkins. If you would have blindfolded me in 1991 and said, `Which Illini athlete will end up an astronaut?' Mike Hopkins would have easily been my first choice."

According to Tepper, becoming an astronaut was Hopkins's boyhood obsession. "He talked about it all the time. Now, a lot of people want to be astronauts. But how many of those really make it?"

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Hopkins did a live Q&A from the International Space Station with the Fighting Illini football team on Dec. 16, 2013. Watch video of a portion of the session, as well as the weekly inspirational videos that Hopkins sent the team during the 2013 season: