Launch Code

Astronaut Tim Kopra ’13BUS circles the planet sixteen times a day. What on earth propels him?

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2016
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Tim Kopra makes repairs to the International Space Station. / Photograph by NASA

THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT is on his back. In his white suit he lies in the custom-contoured seat, knees bent. That’s the best way to take the g-forces. When the rocket zooms toward the atmosphere’s dome, the astronaut will feel the pressure of five times his weight — nearly a thousand pounds — drive into his chest.

Through the visor of his helmet he studies the control panel, its dials and buttons marked with Cyrillic characters. He knows this board like the back of his gloved hand, having spent much of the past two years in Star City, the Russian space-training complex near Moscow. Though the spacecraft is fully automatic, no system is infallible, and the astronaut has practiced, ad nauseam, manual docking and manual descent in the Star City simulator. Now he’s inside the real thing — a Soyuz spacecraft poised atop a slim Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, in the desert steppe of Kazakhstan.

In every sense, Tim Kopra ’13BUS is locked in. It is December 15, 2015, just after 5 p.m., and Kopra is in the leftmost seat — the copilot’s seat — for Expedition 46 to the International Space Station (ISS). To his right is flight commander Yuri Malenchenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency. To Malenchenko’s right is Tim Peake, a Briton from the European Space Agency.

It’s freezing in Baikonur and the skies are clear. Not that weather ever matters with the Soyuz. When it’s scheduled to go, it goes. It’s the most dependable rocket ever built — basically the same type the Soviet Union sent up in 1966, in the heat of the Space Race, when Russo-American cooperation was even more of a fantasy than a 450-ton orbiting lab. Fifty years later, a Soyuz is set to take Kopra and crew to the ISS, which houses voyagers from five space agencies — Russian, American, European, Japanese, and Canadian. The astronauts live and work together for months at a time, studying the effects of microgravity on fluid, fire, plants, microorganisms, and, above all, themselves. With each breath of machine-generated oxygen, each sip of recycled water, they are setting the course for long-term human habitation of space.

Kopra, fifty-two, is a retired Army colonel with a blond buzz cut, an aviator’s jaw, and the toothy grin of someone game for a hike at 3 a.m. Since he became an astronaut in 2000, two events — one in the heavens, the other on terra firma — shook his world and altered his path. He won’t take a moment of this six-month trip for granted.

Six months in space. Kopra couldn’t do it without support at home. No astronaut could. What really makes this launch special for Kopra is that his family has come all the way to Kazakhstan to see him off: his wife, Dawn; their daughter, Jacqueline, a sophomore at Princeton; and their son, Matt, a first-year West Point cadet.

Wrapped in their coats on the roof of a building less than a mile away, the Kopras gaze at the launch site. The Soyuz stands straight and cold in the red desert, a white spire banded in gray and orange.

Launch Code

A few days before his flight, Kopra takes a moment from his regimented schedule to make a point about orbital mechanics. “Space Station is moving at 17,500 miles per hour around the earth,” he says. “It’s continually falling but only slightly descending because of a minuscule amount of drag. This is just as Isaac Newton predicted: he posited that if you shot a cannonball far enough at the right velocity, it would simply go around the planet, which would be curving away at the same rate the object fell. That’s what Space Station is doing, at five miles per second. And the Soyuz has to chase it down.”

How high up is Space Station? For reference, passenger planes don’t fly higher than eight miles in the air. The boundary of outer space is sixty-two miles up. Space Station is about 250 miles above Earth. And since Space Station is falling, its inhabitants are weightless, just as they’d be in an endlessly dropping elevator.

Kopra calls it “Space Station,” never “the space station,” as if it were more a place than a thing. It is as wide as a football field (including the dragonfly wings of its solar arrays), and made up of dozens of modules that were put together — in space — starting in 1998. Inside, it’s like a human Habitrail: tubular passageways lead to pods and chambers (labs, galleys, sleeping compartments), and white Velcroed walls bristle with hoses and gadgetry. There are windows, too.

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