Reaching the final frontier

Reaching the final frontier

Update: 10:22 pm HOUSTON, TX -- It's not easy becoming an astronaut. But a University of Illinois graduate is making Central Illinois proud by taking his skills to the stars.
Update: 10:22 pm
HOUSTON, TX -- It's not easy becoming an astronaut. But a University of Illinois graduate is making Central Illinois proud by taking his skills to the stars.

Mike Hopkins has spent the past four months aboard the International Space Station. It's a trip he spent decades preparing for. WCIA-3's Anna Carrera visited NASA's Johnson Space Center to find out just what it takes to earn a space suit.

You definitely need to be smart and willing to work hard. But there's a lot more to making it in space than just rocket science.

Every year, thousands of aspiring astronauts head to Houston, hoping to earn the job of a lifetime. Five years ago, Hopkins was one of them. He and eight others made the cut in 2009, but getting accepted to the program was just the beginning.

"It's basically like being in college again," said Mark Guilliams, who is the lead astronaut strength and rehabilitation trainer at the JSC.

Guilliams and Bob Tweedy are two of the physical trainers who work with astronauts in Houston, helping them get ready for lift-off.

"When you go to space, you lose muscle and everything that's related to," said Guilliams. "You lose strength, you lose power, you lose muscle endurance and you lose your cardiovascular fitness. What we try to do from an exercise perspective is minimize all those losses."

Guilliams teaches astronauts to use three different devices, including the ARED (Advanced Resistive Exercise Device). It looks like a weight machine, but it's a little more complicated than that. Since there's no gravity in space, racking up a lot of "weight" wouldn't work. So it uses special technology to simulate mass instead.

"You're working against a constant force," said Tweedy. "A vacuum."

Launching into the stratosphere can do wonders to help you reach new fitness feats.

"In space, you have to remove your body weight out of the equation," said Guilliams. "So if you take somebody who weighs 200 pounds and they squat 300 pounds, in space that's roughly 500 pounds."

Astronauts also do cardio on a special bike or treadmill.

"That stretch of the bungee will basically pull him down to the tread belt so he stays on the tread belt so he can run," said Tweedy.

Those add a few differences to an exercise regimen Hopkins was already used to as captain for the University of Illinois football team and pilot in the Air Force.

"He's always been an avid workout person, so I actually had more trouble keeping him in than letting him go," said Guilliams.

While the astronauts are training there, they get to work with a real, life-sized version of the International Space Station. It's about as wide and long as a football field.

In Building Nine, Hopkins practiced emergency simulations with fellow trainees. The ISS mock-up has all of the same dials and knobs as the real thing. With storage bins and sleeping bags in their proper place, the goal is to get the astronauts to feel at home before they leave home.

"You have to learn all the systems. Not just one, but all of those systems," said Guilliams. "From the ventilation system to the bathroom, it's everything."

"Once you become an astronaut, you have to be able to learn a tremendous amount of information really quickly, integrate it, know it and be able to use it," said NASA Space Station scientist Liz Warren.

That includes all the science behind getting to space and making sure you can maneuver around once you're there.

"They train pretty extensively to be good at a lot of different things," said Warren. "Flying, scuba diving, multiple degrees, engineering, medicine."

Even though there's no way to replicate zero gravity on earth, astronauts train with the next best thing.

"When they're training for EVA [Extravehicular Activity], they do all that in the pool. It's not exactly the same because you still have the gravity effects, even in the pool, but it's as close as you can get."

But that's as close as Hopkins needed, because after a couple years there he was ready for the ISS.

Tuesday at 6 pm on WCIA-3, we'll take you inside the real International Space Station and show you what Hopkins has been doing up there for the past few months.

If you want to see extended video of Hopkins and the training he did, click on the video links above. 
Original: 4:58 pm
INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION -- An astronaut with ties to the UI is making history by working aboard the ISS. It took a lot of training to get Mike Hopkins where he is today and he's still working at it.

NASA's Johnson Space Center is where he learned the ropes. A couple of his trainers showed off the kind of equipment he's using on the ISS. It may look like the kind of stuff you use at the gym, but they each have special modifications to work without gravity.

One of Mike's trainers says the work he did in Houston kind of mirrors what he did while playing football at UI. Most of his pre-flight work happened at the JSC.

He got to know a pair of cosmonauts who launched to the space station at the same time he did. Even though you can't really simulate zero gravity on earth, NASA trainers say they've have the closest thing to it.
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