Astronaut Tim Kopra Shares Stories of His 244 Days in Space

Tim Kopra

NASA astronaut Tim Kopra began December 15, 2015 in remote Kazakhstan, site of Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, the only spaceport in the world currently capable of launching humans into space. Eight and a half minutes after blastoff, firmly nestled into a precisely molded plaster seat liner aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, he’d reached orbit, and six hours later had arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), his home for the next six months.

An army veteran and graduate of West Point, the U.S. Army War College, and Columbia Business School, among others, Kopra spoke on campus November 15 as part of SEAS’ Extreme Engineering series. Introduced by Professor Jeffrey Kysar, chair of mechanical engineering, the distinguished astronaut shared his extraordinary experience with a packed audience of students, faculty, and extraterrestrial enthusiasts.

“Beyond your lights when you’re in space is black like pea soup,” said Kopra, who has logged a cumulative 244 days in orbit. “You’re in the muck.”

On his first voyage, in 2009, he traveled to the ISS—“truly an international laboratory in space, orbiting the earth every 90 minutes”—aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor, staying for nearly two months and performing a five-hour-and-thirty-two-minute spacewalk before returning to Earth on the Space Shuttle Discovery. On his second and most recent trip, in the left seat of three on the Soyuz vessel, Kopra reached the ISS and served with a crew of five others including Captain Scott Kelly, conducting scientific research, helping receive four cargo craft, and completing two spacewalks totaling nearly eight hours.

Being in space is a constant sprint, he explained, with free time almost as scarce as storage space aboard the cramped station. Astronauts hurry to do research, perform maintenance, fit in numerous other secondary tasks, snap some photos, and then exercise to counteract the harmful effects of zero gravity, from loss of bone density and muscle mass to ocular and cardiovascular issues. Elevated CO2 levels on board can give people “space brain” making them “space stupid,” he noted, so it becomes all the more crucial to have expert colleagues below.

“Human spaceflight is really a team sport,” Kopra said. “You really need an expansive ground team and mission control.”

In some ways, he described, training was harder than actual spaceflight, with intensive work on manual docking and countless hours in the centrifuge. Still, there were things he wasn’t quite ready for, like the dramatic vista of Earth rotating 250 miles below—“it’s so amazingly beautiful, it would blow you away,” he said—or the experience of floating through an aurora’s band of shimmering green as he shut off lights for the evening.

The few downsides included difficulty sleeping in zero gravity, mediocre food, the extremely complicated onboard toilet, and the journey back down.

“Coming home is about as violent as you can get, like an amusement park ride from hell,” Kopra said. “You land so hard you check if you broke anything, and your next few days feel like a combination of a really bad hangover and the flu.”

Back on earth, Kopra is preparing to serve on the next astronaut selection committee, looking for a new generation of space explorers.

“I’d recommend it to anybody,” he said.

By Jesse Adams

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