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

Photograph by Frank Herfort

The first time Kopra saw Earth from space was in 2009, when he went from Endeavour’s mid-deck to the flight deck and looked out the window. His response to the planet as seen from space was physiological. Kopra’s internal instruments of balance and vision were thrown; the sight of the earth moving made him feel as if he’d spun briskly around in a chair and stood up. It took a little time to adjust.

But even more disorienting is returning to Earth. After a couple of months of weightlessness, your hand-eye synchronization is wonky and your inner-ear settings are shut off, and you have to spend forty-five days in a rehab program to regain muscle strength. “It’s a little miserable,” Kopra says with a laugh. “For the first two days it’s like a cross between the flu and a terrible hangover.”

Time will tell how a six-month trip affects him. But he already knows what he wants to do after he comes back this spring, as “therapy.” He wants to get a motorcycle.

Launch Code

On a cold day in Moscow three weeks before his launch, Kopra walked through the All-Russia Exhibition Center, a vast park of space-themed sculptures and monuments, aircraft and spacecraft, and a museum honoring Russian space achievement, especially the career of Yuri Gagarin. “Space is like a religion here,” Kopra said. He thought it was cool that his Soyuz would lift off from the same platform that launched Gagarin on April 12, 1961. That day, Gagarin became the first human being in space. Sacred stuff.

"When I was six, every kid wanted to be an astronaut. The space program was a great objective, and a very clear one.”

The aura of hallowed tradition could be felt, too, in the prelaunch hours in the hangar at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where the press trailed the crew through its final preparations: suit fittings, pressure checks, simulated drills, capsule inspection, and the blessing of a Russian Orthodox priest. Kopra took it in. He was genial with reporters and reverent toward his crewmates — the stoic Malenchenko, one of the most accomplished cosmonauts in history (“a rock star,” says Kopra), and the cheery, unassuming Peake, the first Briton to visit Space Station. “I’m blessed to go up with them,” Kopra said.

With supporters waiting outside, the trio left the hangar in blue flight suits to board the bus to the launch pad (Kopra, all grins and thumbs up, called out to friends in the crowd: “Party in July!”). At the launch site they changed into their pressure suits, walked toward the virtuous missile, and rode the elevator up the service tower to the orbital module, 150 feet in the air. Soon they’d be higher than that.

Launch Code

White fumes curled from the four conical rocket boosters clustered around the core rocket. That was how Dawn Kopra knew it was time. There was no countdown clock like in Florida. The smoke swelled and flashed with light, the four fueling towers retracted like a flower opening up, and the rocket lifted from the platform. The bright-orange gases of burning propellant fluttered from the exhaust nozzle with an infernal rumble. In moments, the rocket became a flaming diamond, and let loose a fabulous white contrail that stroked the sky and cast a shadow over the desert; the Soyuz, now a twinkling spur, jettisoned its boosters and disappeared. Eight minutes after liftoff, Kopra was in orbit.

The chase was on. Six hours later, a view from Space Station revealed the Soyuz approaching like a metallic bug with solar-panel wings. It drew closer against the swiftly moving backdrop of a luminous blue sphere marbled and feathered with white clouds. At 17,500 miles per hour, the Soyuz had reached its destination. It was time to dock.

In a theater in Baikonur, the Kopra family sat with the other families, watching the event live on a big screen. With the Soyuz a few hundred feet from port, something odd happened. The Soyuz backed away. A glitch in the onboard computer caused the automated docking system to shut down — a rare event. Malenchenko would have to attempt a manual docking.

Dawn Kopra wasn’t worried. She knew Malenchenko and had confidence in him and the crew. Faith, she says — “faith in God, faith in Tim, faith in the team” — helps her cope with the anxiety of having a loved one blast into space, live aboard a satellite, undock and reenter the atmosphere in a capsule at blistering speeds, and land, not so softly, under a subsiding parachute in the Kazakhstan steppe. In any case, she feels that Kopra is safer in space than he’d been in other locales. “I just remind myself that at least he’s not deployed,” she says. “No one is actively trying to hurt him.”

Malenchenko, on the second try, lined up the crosshairs and docked the Soyuz. Applause and exhalations on the ground. Higher up, the crewmates of Expedition 46 wriggled through a hatch and into the falling laboratory, where the three current residents, including Scott Kelly, an American who’d been onboard since March 2015, greeted them.

Days after Kopra’s arrival, a problem was discovered on the station's exterior. A rail car for the mobile transporter had stalled, and it had to be fixed before the next supply ship arrived. This required an unplanned space walk. The task fell to Kopra and Kelly. Tim Peake and cosmonaut Sergey Volkov helped the Americans into their protective suits. Kelly and Kopra stepped out into space and quickly got the rail car unstuck. When they poked back inside, there were slow-motion fist bumps all around.

Kopra, circling the earth, was home.

Once, he had awakened to a world in which humans walked on the moon. Now he was testing the limits of human duration in space, a grand experiment that was pointing in the direction of the unthinkable: a journey to Mars. NASA wants to send humans to the red planet by the 2030s, and is now recruiting astronauts for that purpose.

“When I was six, every kid wanted to be an astronaut,” Kopra said that day at the All-Russia Exhibition Center. He was standing near Monument to the Conquerors of Space, a 1964 titanium sculpture of a 350-foot contrail curving upward, capped with a small rocket. “The space program was a great objective, and a very clear one.” Kopra paused. “Astronauts were serving their country. They were also serving humanity.”

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