In Houston, anytime is a good time to talk to astronauts, after all, this is Space City. And Houston was at the center of that historic moment when mankind took its first steps on the moon. While the single steps were small, the leap made by the heroic astronauts of Apollo 11 for space exploration were experienced worldwide.
So, it is certainly fitting as the city gears up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this July to pay tribute to NASA and members of the United States Astronaut Corps. With NASA’s help, Visit Houston caught up with two of its current astronauts, Victor Glover, Jr. and Michael Hopkins.
Victor and Michael both have been tapped to become crew members aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which recently completed a successful test launch to the International Space Station (ISS) with no crew on board. Test pilots at heart, Victor and Michael are thrilled to currently be in training for a long duration mission to the ISS.
Victor is black, Michael is white and they wanted to do the interview together to emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusion in the nation’s space program today.
Here’s an abbreviated version of our conversation with some edits for length.
Visit Houston: We wanted to know how Victor and Mike got interested in space. Was it a lifelong dream or did they stumble into it?
Mike: For the two of us, I think you’re going to find it’s a little different. For me, I’m a little older than Victor. I was in high school back in the early days of the shuttle program. I graduated in 1987 and during those times, they used to actually show the shuttle launches in school. They’d bring everybody into the auditorium or the gym and you’d see the launch on TV. So that’s when the dream was really first born in me. Watching those early shuttle launches and missions, it just kind of grew from there.
Visit Houston: Mike also has a family history of flying. His father and uncle were both pilots, so he has always had an interest in aviation. Victor on the other hand, says becoming an astronaut and a pilot were lifelong dreams that he fell into.
Victor: When I was a kid, I also saw shuttle launches on television in the 80’s, in elementary school. (They both laugh about their age difference.) It was seeing the shuttle launch on television that first planted that seed. Although with my background, I didn’t have any idea what that path to becoming an astronaut was. I didn’t even have the wherewithal to say I want to be an astronaut, but seeing the shuttle launch on TV, I thought to myself, I want to drive that thing. And I didn’t know any pilots, I didn’t know any engineers. Long story short, I would wind up going to college and studying engineering. Because of some great teachers and mentors, I would wind up going from college into the military, and becoming a test pilot.
Visit Houston: Victor credits his pursuit of becoming an astronaut with hearing one of the few female shuttle commanders, Pam Melroy speak at a convention when he was about 25 years old and in test pilot school.
Victor: Watching her talk was the moment it went from that sort of shapeless childhood dream to a very specific path.
Visit Houston: Despite their close bond, Victor and Mike admit they grew up very differently. Mike on a farm, Victor in an urban environment. But they talk about the things that bind them, the military culture they share which includes moving different places and living in other countries, and most importantly their love of family.
Victor: We have this really obvious difference in that Mike played defense. Mike’s white, I’m black that’s an obvious thing when you see a picture of us, but when you see us together, you get how much we have in common, the lingo, the vernacular we use is very similar. I grew up in the inner-city and moved around a lot.
Mike: I was rural, I was out on a farm; you had to drive through a creek to get to my house. The closest neighbor was a half mile away. But when you really look at it, you know we both had loving parents that made sure we went to school and we did the right thing in our education. We both found a passion in sports and were able to pursue sports in a way that I think has helped us get to where we are today. We were able to come out of that environment, I don’t want to say disadvantaged, but I had 72 kids in my class and maybe 10 of us went off to college. It just wasn’t a normal progression for people as they moved into careers or professions. I really think it starts with our parents, guiding us in similar ways and then I think when you start looking at the passions we both have, they just line up.
Victor: Yeah, that’s what I think is really neat is that very different beginning leading to a very similar path- -not just that we both would go from high school into college and study something technical; we both were Division 1 athletes. My engineering degree was important, but it was really sports, especially wrestling. I went to CalPoly on a wrestling scholarship and Hopper went to Illinois on a football scholarship.
Visit Houston: Mike admits he didn’t get to college on a football scholarship, but was a walk-on to the team. Victor says he too was a walk-on in college football, but he credits the camaraderie of athletics with getting him interested in a career in the military.
Though at different time periods, Mike and Victor took very similar professional paths becoming test pilots and crew mates training for the same mission. They both call it winning the lottery.
Victor: We joke all the time, we won the lottery.
Mike: Anytime the chief of the office calls you up and says I’m putting you on a mission, I’m gonna send you into space--that is winning the lottery. That is a very, very good day no matter what, but then when he says I’m putting you on one of our newest commercial vehicles and by the way your crew mate is going to be Victor Glover, you’re just sitting there going oh my gosh, can it get any better than this. I really do need to go out and buy a lottery ticket.
Visit Houston: We wanted to know as an African American what makes Victor smile and what troubles him?
Victor: Anytime I talk about this topic I go back to the source, the founder of Negro History Week, Carter Woodson, second African American to get a doctorate degree from Harvard, historian, he wrote in the Journal of Negro History, why he started this celebration. It was to be able to celebrate history, the history of humanity without race, gender or religious bias. It’s why we’re interviewing together. I very clearly didn’t want to just do these and have them pull me the black crew mate out to talk about what we’re doing because it’s important. I’m very excited that people talk about this mission in terms of what it’s going to mean for NASA, for America, and for humanity and human space flight. That was the goal of Carter Woodson, to make sure that we just tell the story in its completeness and Mike and I get to be part of this really neat piece of American history.
What worries me is this kind of thing doesn’t rise above some of the noise of division. There’s a lot of division. I told you the military culture probably pervades more than any other single facet of my life; I read the constitution multiple times a year and I take my oath very seriously and the oath all military and government service employees make... it starts like this: “I do solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic—and we do have foreign enemies for sure, but the greatest threats in my opinion are division. They’re internal, they’re what we have right here in the house.
Visit Houston: Both Victor and Mike say that’s why their relationship is so important. Their mutual respect and deep friendship is apparent in the way they refer to one another by nicknames. Victor calls Mike, ‘Hopper’ short for Hopkins and Mike calls Victor, ‘Ike,’ a name one of his first commanding officer’s gave him, which stands for “I know everything.”
Victor: My relationship with Hopper is to me a great story about the importance of unity, and it isn’t just racial. We fly together in a high-performance aircraft. We’re doing something very unique, hard, technical, and operational together. So, division is the thing that worries me, but I think we got to focus and talk about the importance of unity and that’s the only way we’re going to counter that.
Mike: Really, it’s simply the color of our skin is the only thing that’s really different about us and that’s such a small piece of it that I really like the celebration of our similarities, of what brings us together, what makes us work so well together. There’s just so many things that draw us together rather than separate us.
I grew up in a world where there weren’t a lot of black families where I grew up in rural Missouri. And yet Ike is opening my eyes to some realities that are out there that I’m probably like a lot of people that you tend to not think about it because it’s not impacting you in ways that obviously it impacts a lot of people out there and so I’m very thankful for that piece of it. Ike is quite frankly educating me in ways and has opened my eyes.
Visit Houston: Victor believes he is part of the solution to getting more African Americans involved in space exploration. How do we get more African Americans involved in all of this?
Victor: With the power of outreach and exposure, for example Hopper and I being able to go out and talk in the places that we come from. NASA does great outreach, but again one of the great aspects of this story is Hopper’s from a farm and I’m from the inner-city, well guess what those are places NASA doesn’t go very often. So, if we go there to talk, there are going to be kids like he and I when we were growing up. And to some of those kids who may have never seen an astronaut who looks like they look, or come from where they come from, I think that is a very powerful aspect. Exposure, but also exposure that has context--that looks like you.
Visit Houston: Mike wants to also remind everyone that he and Victor or just regular guys.
Mike: Ike and I are no different than the majority of people out there. Yes, we’ve worked hard, yes we’ve had dreams, but a lot of things have fallen into place for us as well. We’ve had lots of great mentors and guidance along the way. No matter where you start in this country, you don’t have to be Superman, you don’t have to be a genius, you don’t have to be Captain America, you can just be regular old Victor Glover or Mike Hopkins and you can end up as an Astronaut.
Visit Houston: For Mike, this will be his second voyage into space; it will be Victor’s first.
Mike: Despite it being a second flight, there’s a lot of newness to this adventure as well, just to get to be a part of this new vehicle is great. And I have to say I’m thrilled that I’m getting to fly with Ike and getting to see him see all this for the first time. I cannot wait until the rocket motor cuts off and we’re in orbit around and go around the earth. I cannot wait to see his expression. That’s going to be fantastic to get to share that experience with him.
Victor: This whole process is amazing. I’m doing all of these things for the first time. Some of the training we’re doing is similar to training we’ve done before, but in the middle of it, I’ll think to myself, this is because I’m going to space. I’m really enjoying the training, but Hopper said it earlier, being assigned to an early flight of a space craft is a test pilot’s dream. Flying from the Florida coast, I think is every astronaut’s dream, all of us want to do that. Then like Hopper said to get the call from the chief that you’re going on a mission is a special thing. I mean anyone one of those would be great and to have all of those things together and then be flying with someone I’m really excited about flying with, it’s just like… I love that term… over the moon… we literally are over the moon. The only thing that would be cooler is actually getting to go over the moon.
Visit Houston: Victor and Mike believe we are only beginning to see the capabilities of commercial space missions. They say Congress and the White House have asked NASA to focus on ushering in the next phase of space exploration.
Mike: Handing over some of the day-to-day operations in lower orbit to commercial companies allows NASA to focus on let’s say the long-term goals of human exploration in the solar system like going back to the moon and going on to Mars. Second, when you have more ways that you can get people up into space, if you do have an incident with any one vehicle now your access to space is not cut off. And then, I think the more people we can get into space, I think it’s exciting that maybe people don’t just have to be NASA astronauts in the U.S. to get up into space. The experience is too incredible to have it limited to just a few of us that get lucky enough to get selected by NASA.
Victor: I think that aspect of it is really huge too. You know NASA does a lot of outreach, but there is no outreach like the actual real-world accomplishment itself, the idea of being able to launch any American, or any humans, like Hopper said, not just NASA astronauts. I think you’re going to see in rapid succession, not just these NASA missions, but you’re going to see lots of folks experiencing orbit or space, lower altitude flights or orbital space flights, participants to the space station and the eventual commercialization of the space station, not just the vehicle to get there. That laboratory may become a full on national or international laboratory that other folks can use without NASA being the middle man, the broker. So, you’re going to see lots of things that we can’t even imagine right now come to fruition.
To learn more about Victor and Michael and the upcoming space mission go to: