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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In 2009, Kopra went to Space Station on the space shuttle Endeavour for a two-month stay. His team brought up parts for the Japanese module, including a platform for experiments, which Kopra attached by operating a robotic arm. This required a five-and-a-half-hour space walk, for which he had to put on a two-hundred-pound protective suit (you don’t feel the weight, but the added mass makes your movements harder to control) and then maneuver his tethered bulk through an open hatch and into the black void. Like all space activity, space walks carry risks, whether it’s decompression sickness (i.e., the bends) or a suit leak (a meteor as small as a grain of sand can cause a catastrophic nick). Some astronauts have described a primordial fear of coming unhooked and drifting away in the dark. But generally, they are so focused on their tasks, and secure in the knowledge that, as Kopra says, “thousands of people are working to keep us safe,” that fear takes a back seat.

Photograph by Frank Herfort

And you get to fly. Inside Space Station, astronauts move around by a kind of directional floating. “You use handrails to push off, and you go,” Kopra says. “It’s amazing how fast you adapt to zero gravity.” Of his first mission, Kopra says, “I was totally relaxed. Before I knew it, I was carrying things with my legs like it was another day at the office.” The downside is atrophy. “In space, your bones lose calcium and your muscles weaken because they have no gravity to fight.” For that reason, astronauts must exercise at least two hours a day on special equipment. There’s a treadmill with a harness, and a device that uses resistance to mimic the effects of weightlifting.

When they’re not working (which is seldom), astronauts can read, watch movies, listen to music, and send e-mails (there is Internet service onboard). Kopra’s favorite pastime on his first mission was looking out the window. On Space Station, the sun rises or sets every forty-five minutes. “Those stripes of color on the horizon: violet to blue to yellow to orange to red. It was so beautiful it didn’t look real,” Kopra says. “In daylight you could see a thin film covering the planet — the atmosphere. All else was the blackness of space.

“You begin to realize that you have the earth, and then you have nothing. You recognize that we’re really, really alone.”

Launch Code

Wake up, Timmy! Wake up!

Danny Kopra yanked his baby brother from his dreams and set him in front of the TV. The screen showed black-and-white images of something so incredible that even six-year-old Tim, up past his bedtime and enlivened by the bolt of history and his brother’s excitement, could grasp its importance. Danny, who was twelve, had a desk crowded with models of Gemini and Apollo rockets. He was born in 1957, the year the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Tim was born in 1963, a year after John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. Now, on July 20, 1969, at 9:56 p.m. in Austin, Texas (just 150 miles west of Mission Control in Houston, which might as well have been the center of the universe), the brothers watched Neil Armstrong in his puffy white spacesuit bounce on the surface of the moon.

Like millions of other kids, Kopra thought: I want to be an astronaut.

Three years later, Danny woke his brother again, this time after midnight, to watch Apollo 17, the last lunar mission. While the rest of the family slept — their older brother, Andy; their dad, Lennart, the son of Finnish immigrants and a communications professor at the University of Texas; and their mom, Martha, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor — Tim and Danny watched the Saturn V rocket blast off in a fiery convulsion that turned the nighttime into day.

Launch Code

Kopra, a former Boy Scout, had always been geared toward leadership and service, and when it came time for college, he was accepted to West Point. “Tim was commander of his cadet company,” says Sean McDevitt, a West Point classmate. “It was one of the top-performing companies in the cadet corps. Tim led by positive motivation. He led by example. He set a high bar for every goal and made you want to achieve that goal. People wanted to follow him.”

One day in 1981, as Kopra was eating in the mess hall with 4,500 other cadets, three alumni guests got up to speak. These men were all former astronauts. One of them, Frank Borman, was commander of Apollo 8, the mission on which humans first orbited the moon. “I didn’t have sports heroes growing up,” Kopra says. “My idols were astronauts. To think that Borman had once been a plebe himself and sat in this same mess hall — and became an astronaut. Suddenly the dream didn’t seem so crazy.” That same year, on April 12, a new vehicle, Space Shuttle Columbia, took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and returned two days later, landing like a glider — the world’s first reusable spacecraft.

"Those stripes of color on the horizon: violet to blue to yellow to orange to red. It was so beautiful it didn’t look real.”

Launch Code

After four years at West Point, Kopra had to decide what branch of the Army to serve in. He chose aviation.

It wasn’t just the thrill of flying that lit the flame in his gut. “For me, it’s about having a task, performing it as well as you can, and always finding room for improvement,” he says. “What I like about aviation is that it requires a blend of technical, operational, and leadership skills. It’s extremely demanding.” He spent three years at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in the 101st Airborne, training on scout helicopters like the Bell OH-58 Kiowa — “no buzzers or whistles, no GPS, just a manual and maps.”

In May 1990, Kopra married Dawn Lehman of Lewisburg, Kentucky. That summer, Iraq invaded Kuwait. By fall, Kopra had completed training in an Apache helicopter — essentially a flying tank, with night vision and three weapon systems to take out armored vehicles. By December, Kopra was flying Apaches in Operation Desert Shield.

After the war, Kopra went to school and became an experimental test pilot, an elite and dangerous job whose most famous practitioner was the original sound-barrier buster, Chuck Yeager. These pilots explore the outer limits, take a machine to the screaming edge of its capacity. Or, as Kopra puts it: “If an aircraft has a new weapon system or new aerodynamic qualities, you have to try them out.”

He was aware, of course, that America’s first astronauts — the Mercury Seven — had all been test pilots. Where else was there to go, really, but up?

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