From soldier to spaceman-A journey beyond the Army
November 21, 2008
As children we all have dreams of what we want to be when we grow up. For some of us it is a doctor, a dancer, a fireman, a soldier or an athlete.
But as we grow up those dream change-we loose interest, or forget, or realize the impossibility of them. Unless, you are someone like Col. Tim Kopra and you dreamed of being the next Buck Rogers-people like Kopra hold onto their dreams and eventually, turn them into reality.
Kopra was originally a helicopter pilot in the Army.
He graduated from West Point in 1985 where he studied computer science and afterward was assigned to Fort Campbell, Ky., and then later moved to Germany. He also served in Desert Storm, but being an astronaut was "always in the back of my mind."
"(Getting into NASA) was a long process-it was really a lifelong dream ever since I was a child and (the U.S was) landing on the moon," Kopra explained. "Most kids wanted to be an astronaut and I kind of held onto that dream, but as we grow up we start to forget some of those dreams that don't seem realistic."
However, in his freshman year of college something happened that reawakened Kopra's dream of space travel-West Point hosted a presentation by NASA astronauts.
"We had the opportunity to listen to Frank Borman and some other Apollo astronauts....speak," he recalled. "It was a very clear moment to me that became something that was real. If Frank Borman and the other Apollo astronauts could achieve that then maybe I could too someday."
"(This) made me realize that there really was a path and a way to make (that dream) happen. It made it something that was more achievable."
Discovering a career path towards space was no easy task and Kopra spent a good deal of time researching the paths that men before him had taken-including Borman.
Borman's path went through West Point, although he was a career Air Force officer.
The result from his research, Kopra said, was why he was a pilot, chose to go to graduate school to study aerospace engineering, and spent time as a test pilot for the Navy.
"I felt that after Navy test pilot school, and (the time he spent) working in an assignment with NASA, I would have a competitive application to apply to be an astronaut," he explained. "(More than) 2,500 people turned a packet in to do the exact same thing I wanted to do."
With so many smart and capable people applying for the program, he said, chances were remote of being selected. Out of all the applications, NASA picked 17 of those packets for the 18th group of astronauts to ever work in its space program.
Kopra said the day he answered the phone and found an NASA official on the other end telling him he had been selected for the upcoming class "was definitely one of the highlights of my life."
He is now in training to live on the Space Station for three months and is scheduled to launch sometime in the summer of 2009.
But not all the jobs on the Space Shuttle involve being a pilot.
"I was selected as a mission specialist in our class," he explained. "The difference in our office between pilots and mission specialists is that pilots fly the Space Shuttle. The mission specialists have other duties like space walks, robotic operations, living on the Space Station-all of which I think are cooler than flying the Space Shuttle."
He added that one of the most fascinating portions of his training was getting ready for the International Space Station, and how it is truly an international project.
"I train with cosmonauts from Russia-the best of the best from Russia-Japanese (and) Canadian astronauts, and ones from the European space agency," he explained. "The thing I think is challenging and exciting about that is that these are absolutely the top of the top from each one of those organizations. I feel both privileged and often times humbled to be working with such an elite group of people."
Kopra also noted that the interesting thing about science fiction is that the good science fiction brings creativity into technology.
"The science fiction folks are writing about the things you want that are not possible," he explained. "Well, if it is something that is desired and needed then eventually we'll come up with the technology to make it happen. So that's why if you look at Jules Verne, a lot of the things he had written about so long ago have come to fruition."
He said that the general philosophy of NASA is to push the boundaries on what our capabilities are with respect to space.
"Our purpose within NASA is to learn as much as we can about our environment outside of our planet, and within our planet. And that is what we do," Kopra explained. "What is interesting about the Space Station research that is becoming more and more developed is that we are going to learn a lot about human physiology, about our world and planet, how we react with each other on our planet, and it's an exciting time because of that.
"Because there will be great discoveries that come out of each component of NASA-be that from the International Space Station and scientific development, from robotic probes that we have on Mars and future plans to go to our other planets and moons-it's just an exciting time for NASA and our nation."
Kopra, who is married and has two children, said his father was a "hump pilot" during WWII. When left active duty he taught at the University of Texas and served in the reserves for 20 years. He said his father was a disciplined man and proud of his service in the Air Force but really didn't talk about it because he was a humble man.
"So I guess I owe him a huge debt of gratitude just for his humility and his service," he added.
Kopra said that because of the leadership challenges in the military and the example set by his father, he feels it has made a good dad and a good leader. But he said he learned some of those leadership skills while still at West Point.
"It's been 23 years since I graduated from West Point and I think about my experience often," he explained. "I think the further away from the experience the more I appreciate it because I learned some of the intangibles, not the technical side that's applied, but the intangibles. Like discipline and professionalism; hard work and 'mission first;' taking care of people, and dedication and duty-so those are intangibles that I appreciate more and more every day."
And by those intangibles is how Kopra would want to be remembered.
"I think I would want to be remembered as having always done my absolute best, and that I had a positive impact in the areas in which I worked," he said. "And that the things I did represented a fulfillment of duty, and that I was fair."
Being an astronaut is a perfect example of setting a long term goal, and striving to achieve it. Kopra said it was the Army that provided him a way to reach his goals.
"I think back on my career so far and the Army has afforded me opportunities I'm not sure I could ever have even imagined," he recalled. "Being able to fly complex aircraft; to do experimental test flights on aircrafts; living underwater for a week as part of a NASA crew; serving in combat; going to graduate school and getting a masters degree; living in Russia for 10 weeks with a Russian family to learn the Russian language; doing water survival with cosmonauts on the black sea, and the travel opportunities and exposure to a wide variety of cultures. These are all things I don't think I could have imagined even in my wildest dreams."
He added that the Army does a good job of instilling basic values and leadership traits in its people, and if you are going to reach your dreams, he said you need to have those basics.
"Stick through the hard times because things get better," he advised. "Stick with your goals, stick with your dreams and things turn out for the best-just don't give up."
The patch the astronauts wear on their uniforms changes with each class, and ever since the beginning of the space program it has been tradition for the new group to design their own patch.
The class of 2000 is no exception.
The roman numerals at the top of the patch indicate they are the 18th class. Since they are all American citizens there is only one flag-the U.S flag. The 17 stars represents the 17 members, and the large red star at the top, with the three spears that orbit around the earth, originating with the U.S flag is a symbol designed by the first astronauts.
And a little known fact, Col. Tim Kopra said, is that his class is nicknamed "the bugs." So when designing their patch they slipped a little bug into the bottom that almost looks like another star.
"(It) managed to get past the people who approve our patches," he laughingly said.