In his return trip to the International Space Station, former Illini football captain Mike Hopkins still seemed in awe.
“The views are pretty incredible,” the NASA astronaut and commander of the SpaceX Crew Dragon said from the station during a live Q&A session Tuesday with the UI’s aerospace engineering department.
“It is unbelievable. It really takes your breath away. … I get to see the Milky Way every night as I’m going to bed, and it just never gets old. You feel like you could just reach out and grab them.”
Hopkins answered questions from local grade schoolers, engineering students, current football players and alumni for about 25 minutes, before Athletic Director Josh Whitman wrapped it up with a celestial “I-L-L.”
“I-N-I,” Hopkins responded.
Here’s what the 1991 UI grad had to say:
— On what he misses from Earth: Family, weather and being around random people. “We’re up here for six months at a time,” he said. “Family is something that I think all of us miss on a daily basis.”
And the weather gets a bit boring on the space station: “It’s always 70 degrees. There’s no wind. There’s no snow (or) rain.”
After his first flight, he recalled standing in the rain.
“I was just letting the rain fall on me, and I was realizing how much I had missed the weather, Hopkins said.
And in space, you always know who you’re going to see.
“People that you just happen to bump into, things of that nature — you don’t get that up here,” Hopkins said. “If anybody comes up here, it’s for a very specific purpose.”
— On what he’ll miss about space: Being able to do space flips, for one.
“You certainly can’t do this down on Earth,” he said after doing a zero-gravity flip.
— On floating: “It feels incredible,” Hopkins said. “It’s very hard to describe what it’s like to people on Earth because there’s no comparison. When I just flipped upside down, when I did that, the blood doesn’t rush to my head.”
— On advice from coaches that has stuck: “One of the things we emphasized was never quitting on a play,” Hopkins said. “That’s one of the things that stuck with me throughout. Just to become an astronaut, it took me 12 years — four applications. I got three rejection letters.”
The former football walk-on turned captain said another lesson was to “take advantage of opportunities.”
“You just never know,” he said. “All of a sudden, third-string free safety, somebody goes down, somebody else goes down and you’re playing Michigan for the Big 10 championship.”
— On how a future space station could be improved: “I would focus on giving the crew some dedicated space for just the day-to-day living-type activities,” Hopkins said. “We don’t have a dedicated place to do hygiene up here.”
Right now, they take sponge baths in what Hopkins described somewhat like a storage closet.
“We don’t have a place just to brush our teeth or shave,” he said.
“Little things like that I think are important,” Hopkins said.
He’d also like to see a bigger common area to hang out in, plants and better ways to “handle the solid human waste.”
— On being a captain: “Quite frankly, I feel like I failed as a captain,” Hopkins said. “We finished 6–6 on the season, but five of those six losses were by less than a touchdown. And I feel like that was just a failure of the player leadership.”
“I was probably a little more soft-spoken in college than I was in high school, but I think that wasn’t the right approach for our particular team,” he added.
If he could do it again, he’d seek out leadership advice from his coaches and peers.
“Sometimes you don’t really know how to be a captain,” he said. “Learn and absorb as much as you can.”
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