After graduating, Hopkins went into the Air Force per his commitment to ROTC, understanding that it would take time before he had a shot at becoming an astronaut. But he put his active duty on hold when he was admitted to Stanford University to get his Masters in aerospace engineering. Once he got that degree, he became a flight test engineer for several years. He thought his resume might earn him a chance with NASA, but didn’t even get an interview. In 2003, he went to study political science in Parma, Italy—a risky decision he thought might harm his chances of becoming an astronaut. From there, he worked at the Pentagon and then as a special assistant to the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Finally, in 2009, he was selected to NASA’s 20th astronaut class, a nearly life-long dream realized. Four years later, he launched into space.
How do you describe an experience that is entirely your own, that can’t be put into a frame of reference for anyone who hasn’t lived it? In Hopkins’ case, there’s plenty of awe at those he works with and the experiences he’s had. But those in the business world or the military or in technical fields are doing things just as interesting as he is, he says. This isn’t Hopkins being glib so much as a summation of his aw-shucks, eternally nice demeanor. As for being in space, the Earth is dominant as light and dark dance in the backdrop, appearing and disappearing. That floating sensation is ever-present; the fact that you’re in space is always front and center.
“We all see these incredible pictures and videos from outer space of the Earth but until you’re actually there looking down at it—it just puts it in a different light when you’re experiencing it firsthand versus through a video or something like that,” Hopkins says. “It’s very surreal. It’s something that, even after you get there, you’re kind of constantly pinching yourself saying, ‘Is this really happening, is this true?’”