14 Dec 2015
Alumnus and NASA astronaut Tim Kopra EMBAG2013 knows all about “sitting in a tin can far above the world”, as David Bowie put it. The man who is due to take command of the International Space Station in early 2016 talks blast offs, space walking and MBAs with Dominic Midgley
In January 2011, Astronaut Tim Kopra had fewer than six weeks to go before he was due to embark on his second mission to the International Space Station. He was approaching the end of an intense and dangerous 20-month training schedule, which had taken in flying planes, scuba diving, achieving weightlessness inside plunging jumbo jets and undergoing survival exercises in the wilderness.
As the necessary training is so arduous and the expertise required so specific, the pool of candidates qualified to make such a trip is understandably extremely limited. As a result, astronauts are banned from taking part in sports such as motorcycle riding, skiing, parachuting and acrobatic flying. Nobody thought to add bike riding to this list, however.
Unfortunately for Tim, his customary Saturday morning spin on his bike near his home in Houston on 15 January ended in disaster. He came off, breaking his hip in the process, and his injuries immediately ruled him out of taking part in the planned mission.
It was a devastating setback for Tim but NASA’s loss turned out to be London Business School’s gain. “Frankly, because of the bicycle accident, I was afforded an opportunity to do something different,” he says. “I’d been interested in going to business school for a very long time. I have a great job, and I’d like to keep it for the time period I’m scheduled to fly, but the School’s Global EMBA programme really appealed to me. I thought it would give me a chance to identify what other opportunities are out there for astronauts if I chose to do something different, and also to learn a skill-set that could be used both within and outside NASA.”
The roots of Tim’s fascination with space can be traced back to the Apollo 11 mission of July 1969, which resulted in Neil Armstrong becoming the first man to walk on the lunar surface. “I was six years old and we had people landing on the Moon,” he says. “It was a great inspiration for a young kid.” It helped that Tim’s older brother had an enthusiasm for all things space that was highly infectious. “He had models of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules, and he was always following the space programme and talking about it,” he recalls. “The second Moon landing took place four months after the first, my brother and I stayed up late at night and waited for it to happen.
“That’s when I realised what a fascinating thing this was and what a great period our nation was going through. I think that was probably when I became personally enthralled with the whole idea.”
Unlike many others whose imaginations were fired by Armstrong’s feat, Kopra’s dream of becoming an astronaut never faded. He went on to graduate from West Point, and saw active service as a pilot in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. After completing an MSc in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech and graduating from US Navy Test Pilot School, he was assigned to the US Army Aviation Technical Test Center as an experimental test pilot.
But his big break came in September 1998 when he joined NASA as a vehicle integration test engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and, within two years, he had been selected for the astronaut training programme. He was 37 years old. As it happens, Tim’s timing was excellent. Just over a month after he was selected, the first two components of the International Space Station were connected. One of NASA’s solutions to the problem of preparing men and women to spend months on end in an extremely confined space in an alien environment was to subject them to a seven-day stay in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Aquarius underwater laboratory.
‘It’s probably the best training we did in terms of preparing for a high intensity space fight,” says Tim. “Every day is choreographed, and it’s a really great experience in terms of working very closely with people and getting tasks done. At the same time, you have to do all those things that are required just to get by: having meals, getting clean, sleeping, organising your own stuff and getting along with people.” As the Russian space agency Roscosmos is one of NASA’s partners in the ISS, Russian lessons were another must.
By July 2009, Tim was ready to make his first trip into outer space. It was six years after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster but the dangers inherent in being blasted into space in what is essentially a customised missile are never far from astronauts’ thoughts. “You recognise that your life is in peril when you go to space, when you do a spacewalk, or when you come back home. Those are three times punctuated by the recognition that you’re in a very dangerous business.
“But you also think about the fact that a huge team of people have worked very hard to make sure that you’re safe. It’s a totally different business from some in that people are very, very emotionally attached to their jobs and to doing a good job. That is one of the positives. You know that everybody has done their absolute best.”
Once in orbit, a series of events happened in quick succession. Tim and his two fellow crew members docked with the space station on fight day three and spent the night in the airlock. On the morning of fight day four he donned his space suit and embarked on his first spacewalk..
All this coincided with being exposed to his first proper view of Earth from space. “It’s overwhelming,” he says. “It’s absolutely beautiful. We had a lot of work to do, but you could easily stare out of the window for hours at a time. It’s such a phenomenal thing to see. You’re travelling at about five miles per second and going around the planet every hour and a half. The sunrises and sunsets are absolutely spectacular. They don’t
even look real, they are so breathtaking. I’d say probably equal to how beautiful the planet is, is how stark and black space is outside. That in itself, I’d say, is almost startling because you recognise that we have this blue ball, but beyond that there is a lot of nothing.”
Perhaps surprisingly, as Tim prepares for his second space mission, he finds himself applying a number of the elements he had learned while studying for his MBA.
“There is not an easy join-the-dots answer between an MBA and specifically what I’m doing now, training for a space fight, but I often times think back to my experience and the things that I learned, and relate that to the organisations in which we function as a space business.
“When you undertake case studies, what you’re learning about is human behaviour, decision making, leadership techniques, organisational structure and how to be more effective and more efficient. Those are lessons that someone can carry to any job.”
He adds: “Being commander of the space station also presents a very interesting leadership challenge because, while you have a very small group of people on board, there is an enormous infrastructure on the ground that is working toward helping you succeed and getting the mission accomplished. That’s a very unique and interesting leadership challenge because it is largely based on communication and good relationships. That was a theme that we heard over and over again in the case studies at the School.”
He was also gratified to find that the diversity he found as a member of a multinational space crew was reflected in his class at the School. “We had a Canadian doctor astronaut,” he recalls. “I swapped places with a Japanese astronaut. We had two Russian crew members, a European astronaut – who became a commander after I left – and then two Americans. It was a very international environment, and going to London Business School, and being part of the global programme, was an extension of that in a lot of ways.
“I will definitely be keeping in touch with School and my classmates. I made so many very, very close friends. I’ve even been to a couple of weddings. I built some friendships there that are going to be very long lasting. In the long run, absolutely the best part of the programme, I think, will prove to be the close relationships I had the opportunity to develop as part of the programme.”
“Being commander of the space station is a very unique and interesting leadership challenge because it is largely based on communication and good relationships. That was a theme that we heard over and over again in the case studies at the School” Colonel Tim Kopra
‘My most memorable experience’
One of Tim Kopra’s predecessors as ISS commander, Canada’s Chris Hadfeld, says every astronaut’s greatest fear is floating off into space during a spacewalk. Here Tim describes his own spacewalk, which lasted five hours and 32 minutes
One of the things we focus on very strongly in spacewalk training is how to make sure we stay attached to the space station. There are multiple ways in which we work against the possibility of drifting free. First of all, we have a protocol which dictates that we always keep close to station. Once out there, we are always attached to the mother ship by a tether that extends like a long fishing line. If for any reason the worst happens, we even have an emergency jet pack that we can use to fly back. Despite all these measures, you are constantly focused on staying linked to the space station. You can tell how front of mind this is afterwards by how tired your hands are simply from holding on. We work on this very hard in training but there is no substitute for actually doing it to recognise how important staying attached to the station is. Chris Hadfeld had an issue with soap in his eyes, which meant he had to let air out of his suit. I have never had a problem of that gravity but there are always things that occur on spacewalks that are not predicted. One technical anomaly that I had was some scratchy comms via the mike. That made communication a little bit challenging. However, it wasn’t to be compared with having your eyes full of water and being unable to see! That would be a pretty scary experience, I’m sure, and very, very stressful.