FEATURE

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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Kopra, who had earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech in 1995, liked grappling with arcane concepts. “At Columbia, I tried to learn something I knew little about, which is finance, and tried to focus on something I knew more about, which is leadership,” he says. The twenty-month part-time course also allowed Kopra to see the world in a way he couldn’t from a spacecraft window. “I took a class in Buenos Aires, so I spent a week there. One of the lectures was in Dubai, and I spent a week there. NASA agreed to let me take these breaks, and I balanced my work and business school.

SPACE ACADEMY

Meet Six Other Astronauts Who Really Made the Grade
Photographs Courtesy of NASA

KEN BOWERSOX ’79SEAS<br>Missions: 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2002–03
KEN BOWERSOX ’79SEAS
Missions: 1992, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2002–03
KEVIN CHILTON ’77SEAS<br>Missions: 1992, 1996, 1998
KEVIN CHILTON ’77SEAS
Missions: 1992, 1996, 1998
WILLIAM G. GREGORY ’80SEAS<br>Missions: 1995
WILLIAM G. GREGORY ’80SEAS
Missions: 1995
GREGORY H. JOHNSON ’85SEAS<br>Missions: 2008, 2011
GREGORY H. JOHNSON ’85SEAS
Missions: 2008, 2011
STORY MUSGRAVE ’64PS<br>Missions: 1983, 1985, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996
STORY MUSGRAVE ’64PS
Missions: 1983, 1985, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996
EUGENE TRINH ’72SEAS<br>Missions: 1992
EUGENE TRINH ’72SEAS
Missions: 1992

“In my B-school classes, we learned about human behavior, decision-making, leadership techniques, and organizational structure. What I found is that leadership, whether in the military, in the space program, or in business, is always about the same thing: people.”

For Kopra, the executive MBA program was “one of the best experiences of my life,” and not least for how it expanded his social orbit. “I now have great friends in Peru and Mauritius,” he says. “Who’d have thunk?”

Launch Code

With an MBA in hand, Kopra was preparing for his future — but it was a future he hoped to delay. There was other business he had to attend to.

“A lot of people would have given up after that injury,” says McDevitt, Kopra’s West Point classmate. “They would have said, ‘That’s the end of my space career.’” But once doctors confirmed he could recover, Kopra immediately began training to be eligible for another space flight. “He was absolutely determined to push forward,” says McDevitt. “That’s the embodiment of Tim. He turned a devastating, apparently career-ending injury into a situation where he’s going to be the commander of Space Station.”

If you’re going to come back, you might as well come back all the way. As Space Station commander, Kopra will be responsible for operations inside and outside the ISS, and for maintaining the cohesion of the crew. He calls it “a unique leadership challenge,” in that it involves a few people onboard and an enormous team on the ground. “Good communication is absolutely critical,” he says.

Listening to Kopra talk leadership and teamwork just as the first space tourists are piercing the atmosphere in commercial rockets is a good reminder that astronauts are in it for more than the adventure.

“Sometimes people think astronauts are just big risk takers, thrill seekers,” Kopra says. “I don’t think that’s the case. What motivates us is the mission. If anything, one of the greatest skills of the people in our profession is being able to assess risk. When your life is in peril, your personal radar for understanding where you are becomes highly attuned.

“That said, there’s definitely a sense of excitement in riding on a rocket and docking at Space Station. It’s an experience of a lifetime. I remember undocking and looking at Space Station, and just being in awe. You can’t even describe how cool this thing is, and not simply because of how big it is and how complex it is, but for what it represents: all these nations and the human effort to build this thing — in space. It’s mind-blowing.”

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