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Hopkins Crew-1
Mike Hopkins signs his name next to the patch for the Crew-1 mission on the International Space Station in April, near the end of his six-month stay there. (credit: NASA)

Resilience and space situational awareness: an interview with NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins

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When the Crew Dragon spacecraft was making its second trip to space last month on the Inspiration4 mission, the commander of the spacecraft’s first flight was in Hawaii, but not on a well-earned vacation.

“I don’t know if the number [of ISS collision avoidance maneuvers] has increased, but the constellations are growing rapidly. It’s a risk for everybody. It’s something that has to be looked into very closely.”

NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins was instead at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies, or AMOS, Conference in Maui in mid-September while Resilience spent its three days in orbit. Hopkins, who returned from six months in space on Resilience in early May, was learning more about the state of the art in space situational awareness, a growing issue for NASA as well as other organizations and companies operating in Earth orbit. He also used his time for some educational outreach, meeting virtually with students across the state.

Hopkins sat down for an interview during the conference to discuss space situational awareness, his experience with Crew Dragon, and what the future might hold. A condensed version of that interview follows.

Why did you decide to attend AMOS?

As you can imagine, there’s a lot of interest on the NASA side in terms of space situational awareness. There aree multiple times a year that the Air Force, now the Space Force, lets us know about possible conjunctions and we have to sometimes move the station based on that information provided to us. Clearly that’s something that’s important for the day-to-day operations of the International Space Station. This is a good opportunity to see what the community as a whole is looking at in terms of space situational awareness and where NASA can play in that.

Are you looking for specific capabilities here?

Not necessarily. It’s just a good opportunity to see some of the work that’s going on, some of the different players in the industry. It’s interesting to hear, as they’re talking about larger constellations, how we’re going to handle that. Clearly those are issues that can have impacts on NASA going forward.

Did anything stand out from the conference?

It was interesting to hear Gen. Burt, in her opening comments, talking about things like collecting trash. [Space Force Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, in an opening keynote at AMOS, discussed the importance of not just tracking debris but also eventually removing it.] The difference she was making between space situational awareness versus the traffic management piece, and when the Commerce Department is going to get stood up for that. Now there’s the issue of how do we bridge that gap until they’re up and running. Right now between NASA and the Space Force there’s a good relationship in terms of notifications, but is that going to change as we go forward? I don’t anticipate that. That relationship is strong and will continue.

Do you see the growing amount of debris as a risk to NASA?

Absolutely. I don’t know if the number [of ISS collision avoidance maneuvers] has increased, but the constellations are growing rapidly. It’s a risk for everybody. It’s something that has to be looked into very closely.

Is this something you’re going to be spending more time on NASA?

It’s more just getting up to date. I’m in my post-flight period, so there are opportunities to reach out. I just did a virtual outreach session with schools here in Hawaii, so this was an opportunity for killing two birds with one stone.

It’s been four and a half months since you returned from the ISS. Do you feel like you’re back to normal now?

“There was a lot of testing, a lot of firsts with the vehicle, but it all went really, really well.”

It feels back to normal. You know, it’s funny: this is my second spaceflight, and I will say my recovery was different from my first spaceflight, which occurred seven years earlier. You wonder, is this because of age, or is it because of the spaceflight? The recovery has actually gone quite well. I definitely feel like I’m back to normal, if you will, but there were differences between what happened on my first flight to my second flight, in terms of how my body reacted and things of that nature.

You may be aware of the issues we have with eyes, vision, and how that impacts 40% of the astronauts on long-duration spaceflights. It wasn’t as bad this time. On the other hand, I had a difference in bone loss this time, more this time than on the first mission. So you say, am I back to normal? On the outside I say I’m back to normal, but there are some things on the inside that are probably going to take longer before I can say I’m fully back to normal.

What was your impression of the Crew Dragon spacecraft?

It was incredible. We called it the first operational mission, but there were still a lot of tests going on. We were the first four-person crew. We were the first to do a port relocation while we were up there. Once we passed day 64 on orbit, every day after that was expanding the envelope of Crew Dragon. There was a lot of testing, a lot of firsts with the vehicle, but it all went really, really well.

Did you have a wish list of improvements to give to SpaceX?

We do have some things that are areas for improvement. A lot of those areas are very simple, things we can do from a habitability standpoint within the capsule. You expect that. They're fairly simple and we’ll be able to work through with SpaceX.

Even after our mission we’ll continue to learn, and that’s the same with every vehicle. Look at Soyuz: how long has it been going up and down to the space station, yet there’s always upgrades being made, improvements being made. Every mission we’re going to learn some things.

I haven’t shared a lot of specifics, and that’s because there’s a process that is happening in terms of us sharing some of our recommendations and giving SpaceX and the program a chance to take a look at this and see if they want to invest in it. I want to let that process work out.

Hopkins Crew-1
Mike Hopkins (left) with fellow astronauts Victor Glover and Shannon Walker on the Crew Dragon spacecraft after launch last November. (credit: JAXA)

The spacecraft was also where you were sleeping while on the station. How was that experience?

“When we went from the forward to the zenith port, now all of a sudden, the windows are giving you a very good view of the night sky. It was amazing.”

It’s interesting. On the one hand, I was a little nervous about sleeping in Crew Dragon because that’s our lifeboat. One of the first things that happens when you dock to station is that you move in all of this emergency response equipment. If an emergency happens, you want all of that to work like it’s supposed to. So, living and sleeping inside Resilience, exposing to that hardware to things: what if I kick it, what if I do something to it? Then we get into an emergency and find something it not working.

So, I was very nervous about that, very conscious of that, so it dictated how I utilized Resilience as a sleeping quarter. It all worked out fine. We were able to protect the equipment and still have it available.

On the other hand, having the windows? It’s amazing because, on my first mission, I was in normal crew quarters that don’t have windows. So, you spend a lot of your free time going down to the cupola and taking advantage of looking out. I didn't have to do it this time, because I could go into my crew quarters and, be on my computer checking my emails, and I’m getting the views. It changed what I did and when I did things around the rest of the station.

The other advantage of it, which was really amazing, is that the cupola, most of the time, is looking down at the Earth, and when it isn’t the shutters are normally closed. But when we went from the forward to the zenith port, now all of a sudden, the windows are giving you a very good view of the night sky. It was amazing. My crewmate Soichi [Noguchi] took a night timelapse, so you can see the Earth, the very thin atmosphere, and the Milky Way. It takes your breath away.

Did you get a chance to talk to the Inspiration4 crew before their mission, since they’re flying Resilience?

Informally, we’ve had a chance to communicate with them. It was an opportunity to share the little nuggets that we as a crew had experienced. It’s some of the simple things: just remember when you’re on board, it's a little bit like camping, and all four of you are in the same tent. Which means, if one of you gets up to go to the bathroom, pretty much everybody is going to get up.

We talked to them about what it’s like sitting on the vehicle when it’s fueling, which is in itself something that is fairly unique. For years and years, you fueled the rocket and then you got on. It is amazing, when you’re sitting on the rocket as it’s getting fueled, how much it talks to you. You can hear a lot. There are vibrations and there are bangs as they’re opening valves and closing valves. It’s pretty amazing how much it talks to you. Bob [Behnken] and Doug [Hurley], from DM-2, talked about it, so we were kind of aware of it.

“There’s that time when you splash down… where there’s just this big sigh: I am no longer, from this moment, responsible. I don’t even have to get out of the vehicle: if I can’t get out, someone’s going to drag me out of this vehicle.”

I look forward to, maybe after they get back, to hear some of their stories. I’m very excited for Inspiration4. I think it’s great. The more people that have the opportunity to go to space is a good thing. This is all part of NASA’s bigger plan, LEO commercialization. You’re starting to see that come to fruition as we focus on going to the Moon and Mars.

It’s really amazing, when you think about it, that we splashed down May 2, and Resilience is in space. And not only that, it’s in space with a different configuration: instead of a docking adapter it’s got a cupola. That in and of itself was pretty impressive to see.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to, like another flight assignment?

When you get back from a six-month spaceflight, there is a level of physical—I don’t want to say exhaustion, but you’re just tired. There’s a level of mental tiredness as well. During the whole training flow, up to the launch, you’re very focused: it’s a lot of work, a lot of travel. You’re always worried about getting hurt or getting sick, especially this time around with Covid going on.

Then you finally launch, but it doesn’t stop because you’re always on duty. Even on your day off, that doesn’t stop alarms from going off. There’s that time when you splash down, and I’ve got to believe that most astronauts go through this, where there’s just this big sigh: I am no longer, from this moment, responsible. I don’t even have to get out of the vehicle: if I can’t get out, someone’s going to drag me out of this vehicle.

When you ask about what’s next for me, I think for most astronauts it takes a little bit of time to decompress. I’m still in that decompression phase. You got to spend time reconnecting with your family and friends, and that takes time. I’ve been at NASA now for 12 years, and have been very fortunate to launch to space two times. We’ll see what’s next.

Crew-3 is getting ready for launch, and there’s a chance I’ll support that launch by being with their extended families or something like that. I’m very excited about that. My guess is that, when I’m sitting there watching that rocket launch, there’s going to be that little bit of a tug that says I’m excited for them, but it would be nice to be there again. I don’t know if my wife would agree with me on that. Spaceflight is the hardest on the families.

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