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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Launch Code

In 1998, NASA invited Kopra to work as an engineer at Johnson Space Center in Houston. It was a sign that the agency saw Kopra as astronaut material. After two years, Kopra, now a father of two, applied for the astronaut class of 2000. NASA was looking for seventeen people: doctors, pilots, flight-test engineers, and scientists. Six thousand applicants were whittled down to six hundred, then to 120, Kopra included. He was brought in for tests and an interview. The interview was key. You sat facing eighteen NASA representatives and were basically asked one question: what have you done since high school?

Kopra had done a few things since high school. He started going over them.

He was testing hardware at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, when the phone rang. It was the deputy director of Johnson Space Center calling. Kopra had been selected.

“I was overwhelmed,” Kopra says. “You dream of this as a kid, and now it was actually happening. It’s a pinnacle moment. At the same time, I recognized that the real work was just beginning.” He spent the next two years learning about the space shuttle and Space Station, and how to operate their systems.

By 2003, Kopra was in line to go to space. That’s when things changed.

Launch Code

On January 16, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral with a crew of seven for a two-week research trip. Eighty-two seconds into the launch, a piece of foam insulation broke off from the external fuel tank and struck the thermal protection tiles on the left wing, punching a dinner-plate-sized hole. The shuttle made it to orbit, and the mission went as planned. On February 1, Columbia headed back to Earth. Just after 9 a.m., the shuttle reentered the atmosphere, a high-friction event that produced three-thousand-degree heat on the craft’s protected surface. Hot gases entered the gash in the wing, and the shuttle broke apart, forty miles above East Texas. Fragments fell across a two-thousand-square-mile swath.

Kopra was called to assist in the recovery mission. His job was to help organize the recovery of Columbia using helicopters and airplanes to identify debris, which was then retrieved by a ground force of 3,500 firefighters and volunteers combing the East Texas woods.

Shuttle launches were suspended for thirty months. During that time, the space-station program relied on the Soyuz to carry personnel, and Space Station crews were reduced to two people.

It was a grim period for Kopra. The loss of Columbia was a terrible blow. Then, in 2005, Danny Kopra died of a heart attack at forty-eight.

On July 15, 2009, Kopra went to space. Neither his father, who died in 1998, nor Danny was able to see it, but his mother and his brother Andy were there. Dawn and the kids got to watch from a rooftop at Kennedy Space Center as Endeavour, bound for Space Station, rose from great cauliflower clouds on a column of flame.

Kopra returned to Earth on September 11, 2009, aboard Discovery. Even before he got his gravity legs back, NASA invited him to go on Discovery’s final flight. The space-shuttle program was ending, and Kopra was to be a part of history.

Kopra couldn’t believe it. He’d trained for more than a year, endured a string of launch delays, hurled himself into the job body and soul — and now "this".

Launch Code

The front tire hit a slick spot and the astronaut went flying. It was January 15, 2011. Six weeks before Discovery’s final mission, Kopra was sprawled on the asphalt of a suburban Houston street. His bicycle lay nearby.

Dawn Kopra drove up and saw her husband lying there. Her heart dropped. He was conscious, but in severe pain. His hip was broken.

Kopra couldn’t believe it. He’d trained for more than a year, endured a string of launch delays, hurled himself into the job body and soul — and now this. “Astronaut Tim Kopra Injured in Bike Accident,” reported CBS News. Given the extent of his injury, there was no chance of his flying on Discovery.

Kopra was crushed. For him, there could be few worse things than being scratched from a mission. But that wasn’t all: with the shuttle program ending and fewer astronauts going up, Kopra was staring at the end of his space career.

Grounded, Kopra mulled his options. “I’d been a military guy, and was a government guy,” he says. “I didn’t have much experience in the business world, but I’d always had an interest.” Now he had time. He applied to Columbia Business School’s executive MBA program and got in. “My primary focus was to learn some new skills and also to better understand what opportunities are out there.”

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