Six months ago, NASA astronaut Col. Mike Hopkins was 250 miles above the earth, orbiting the planet at 17,000 miles per hour, circling the globe 16 times per day. He was commander of a crew that went up to the International Space Station about a year ago. It was his second time in space. On November 9, he spoke at Richland United Methodist Church via Skype from the Johnson Space Center. He opened his presentation with a view picture taken from the International Space Station of the farm he grew up on – just outside of Richland.
Hopkins showed pictures of his fourth-grade class and the farm. When he was a kid, he knew what he wanted to be: a truck driver.
“I still want to be a truck driver when I retire from this, but my wife and I need to talk about that more,” he said.
It was in high school that he became fascinated with space. He earned his B.S. in aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois and then a master’s in aerospace engineering at Stanford. After earning his first degree, he entered the Air Force and later became the first astronaut to transfer from the Air Force to the newly created Space Force.
He conducted a presentation for the group gathered at the United Methodist church in Richland about his work on the space station, then fielded questions. Many of the people asking questions were familiar faces, including his former school teachers and neighbors. He was asked about how difficult it was to acclimate to being in space and to coming home. He said on his first trip, after the rockets shut off and he first experienced microgravity, he had the sensation he was falling for about 24 hours. But he got used to it. It wasn’t bad because he was finally getting to experience something he had trained to do for years.
Six months in space means returning home also comes with great anticipation.
“Going into space is achieving a lifelong dream, but coming back to Earth is even better,” he said.
Someone asked him about his scariest time, and he said that once while standing on a robotic arm during a spacewalk, the arm jerked to a sudden stop, and when his body shifted in his spacesuit, he thought he had broken loose.
“For a couple of seconds, I thought I was adrift in space,” he said.
Someone asked him how he washed clothes in space.
“You don’t,” he said. He went on to describe how he was issued a new set of workout clothes every two weeks.
“And I was working out two hours a day, getting sweaty,” he said. By the end of the two weeks, he was looking forward to the new set.
He concluded his talk by addressing the big question of how you get from rural Missouri into space. He said it started with faith.
“As I’ve gone through life, my faith has grown with me,” he said. “Prayer was big in getting me there.”
The second thing he mentioned was family. When he met his future wife in college and told her his major, she asked what he wanted to do with that degree. When he said, “Be an astronaut,” she laughed, thinking that sounded like the career goal of a four-year-old. But she learned he was serious, and she was very supportive.
“Doing what I’ve done wouldn’t have mattered if I didn’t have a family to share it with,” he said.
The last thing he mentioned regarding how he got there was crediting rural Missouri and the community surrounding Richland. He said the culture and role models there instilled upon him the value of grit and hard work.
A key person in pulling the event together was church member Marteen Nolan. Nolan is a retired science teacher from Crocker and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.
The event was possible due to recent upgrades to the church, some of which were made due to the pandemic.
“Two years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” said Rev. Mitch Henson. “But with donations and Covid grants from the district and the Missouri United Methodist Foundation, we have been able to move from a church that 10 years ago had zero technology to one with top-quality audio-visual systems. Leading up to the event, we had multiple calls and test runs with NASA to figure out how to make this hybrid Skype event work. We made adjustments and equipment changes each time, but in the end, it went off without any problems and was very high quality.”
A former biologist who had a career managing live animal exhibits for Bass Pro before entering vocational ministry, Henson is a big fan of science and welcomed the opportunity to host a science event like this at the church.
“The more I look into science, the more I see religion being backed up, and the more into our theology, the more I see science backed up. I see two things that are complimentary of each other, not at odds,” Henson said. “Science is studying God’s creation.”