All the blood rushes to your head the second gravity fails you. The turn upside down is not really a turn so much as acquiescing to an erratic tide. You either have or you haven’t gone to space, and most of us haven’t. That’s why Mike Hopkins is struggling to explain to me exactly what it’s like. It’s different for every astronaut, too, so how is it even possible to summarize these sensations? Couple that with the emotion that came with a dream realized, one that took Hopkins across the world and saw three failed NASA applications before this moment, and you’d think the totality of it all becomes a bit much. And yes, Hopkins is often in awe of the sheer scale of all the cogs and screws that work together to make space travel happen. But he’s also remarkably self-effacing about something that captures the collective imagination. “It just happens to be that I go into space,” he says. When you have as many people willing to brag and boast and testify to how great you are, maybe bashfulness and deflection become default settings. Even for someone like Hopkins, who planned virtually his whole life around getting into the position he currently sits—NASA astronaut and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force with one trip to space under his belt and another on the way—so many things have to go right. And they have.
Every decision Hopkins, 50, made since high school— attending college at the University of Illinois, earning a Masters degree at Stanford University, studying political science in Italy and serving under the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—was all in service of his goal. It took him four tries to get accepted into NASA’s astronaut class. In 2013, Hopkins launched from Kazakhstan to the International Space Station, where he conducted two spacewalks and took in a view very few have seen. And he’s about to do it again. This time, if all goes according to plan, it will be on a commercial spacecraft, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, signifying a return of space flight launching from the United States. A lot of things have to happen before Hopkins travels back to the International Space Station, including unmanned and manned test flights beforehand. He anticipates that he’ll be back in space later this year or in early 2020. If you talk to anyone who knows Hopkins, anyone who’s ever come into his orbit, you’ll get the same response: Of course he’s going back.