Walking in space twice has got to be one of the most amazing experiences humans can have. If you’re like me, you will want to hear what it’s like. I loved hearing about Earth, seeing Earth from space, the feeling of launch, all of that uncertainty, all of those thrills. You’ll have to listen to hear the rest. Having walked in space twice however huge is just part of Tim’s experiences. He learned leadership at West Point, CGSC which is like the Army’s graduate school, Columbia Business School and London Business School. What gets you to space isn’t just fitness. It’s everybody involved from the government everyone on down knowing that you will succeed no matter what, that you can work with everyone. It’s about people. And that’s why Tim talks about integrity, consistency, followership which I agree is integral to leading. Leading is more like teamwork which is something that we talk about. It’s about finding something bigger than yourself which if you work in the environment, at least in my experience, is a big part of what we do. Let’s listen to Tim.
Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I’m here with Tim Kopra. Tim, how are you doing?
Tim: I’m doing great today. Thanks.
Joshua: And it’s hard for me not to start off. You’ve been in space. Does everyone start with that? It feels like it’s a pretty big thing.
Tim: You know it’s kind of hard to get around because it’s very uncommon and I’m very privileged to have had the opportunity go to space twice, once for two months and then again for six months.
Joshua: That’s a long time. I want to get to that. I could not help start with that. I’m an astrophysicist. I put something up in space and went to the launch and it was really cool. I want to get to that in a second. A few things I want to talk to you about and certainly the environment part in a bit but leadership and… You’ve done leadership in [unintelligible]. You went to West Point. You went to CGSC.
Tim: I did.
Joshua: You went to Columbia Business School, London Business School. You’ve been out in the field and you’ve had your working experience. I wonder if you can compare and contrast or maybe…Out of these things does anything stand out as being more effective in a way… For people who want to learn to lead is an academic way the best way to do it? What did you learn more or less in different areas?
Tim: Well, I think a lot of leadership is the learning component, the practicing component and then the actual execution and so you know West Point is actually a great place to start because you start with the academic components but then at a very young age, 18 years old, you’re giving very, very basic leadership opportunities to learn and to grow and to make mistakes because we all make mistakes. And I think frankly anybody who is a leader they would certainly tell you they made plenty of mistakes and it’s unavoidable because we’re flawed as humans and you know we learn from our practice and from the actual execution that ends up being one where we make mistakes along the way but we get better as we go.
Joshua: One of the things that for me… I started in leadership in a very academic environment and I learned a lot but it was still… I wasn’t making mistakes. You know reading case studies and maybe I’d say the wrong answer or something but it wasn’t me feeling it. And I feel like a lot of people it’s really scary to do something where you would make the mistake, it’s necessary but a lot of people I think shy away from it.
Tim: I think that’s entirely true. I mean no one wants to be the one who’s exposing themselves to making those kinds of errors along the way but I think that you know when someone is in a leadership position, first of all, you need to demonstrate that you have respect for the people that you’re in charge of leading and people are really good sensors for someone’s level of sincerity to the degree that we can be sincere and forthright and honest and transparent with the people that we lead that the greater chances we have of building that respect. There’s a really good study in fact you mentioned that you had spoken with the Behavioral Science and Leadership department at West Point. I read one of their new publications because I’ve been doing a little bit of leadership training myself and one of the authors in the book talked about idiosyncrasy credits which I thought was a really interesting way of phrasing how a leader is able to be most effective. And the way that this author termed it one of the professors at West Point was that when you demonstrate your integrity and your consistency and fairness to the degree that one can be fair over time and people recognize what your behavior is, then it gives you this ability when things require immediate action or immediate decision or maybe something that’s a little bit off for them to still follow you because they recognize that you’re a consistent person and they give you this credit, this idiosyncrasy credit to go ahead and act in a way that they know is at least what they believe will be in their best interest.
Joshua: A couple of things you’ve touched on were that the putting other person first over and over again I find this the more effective someone is as a leader, the more they divert from like what’s in the movies and TV of you know charging the battle. And it’s always about the other person. In the military the word service always comes up and the word mission always comes up which I feel drives the most effective leaders.
Tim: I think that’s entirely true. I think that it’s also really important for any leader to be able to be a good follower. In fact, one of the interesting aspects of leadership within the astronaut corps is that we’re trained in expeditionary behavior and it really contains three components. It’s, one, being able to take care of yourself and then being a good follower, which means that you intuitively know how to fit in as part of the team without having to be told. And then a good leader who understands the synergies of the strengths that he has within his team and how to combine those. And so I bring that up because even when you’re a leader, there are times when you have to be the follower. You delegate certain things to people within your charge and you need to have a level of trust that’s commensurate with the trust that they’ve earned. But that ability to go back and forth between being a leader and a follower I think is really vital.
Joshua: I feel that the term leadership is… I think people associate it so much with someone telling people to do. It doesn’t quite capture… To me following and leading and teamwork in general are so intertwined.
Tim: A hundred percent.
Joshua: I have a friend who is also a teacher he says, “Josh, everyone, all students in college…” He says, “I’ve taught students from all over the world. All over the world students are basically very similar. American students all believe that their best the best leaders in the world. They are not. They are just like everybody else. They think they are.” And I think that that lack of humility and I say this because my lack of humility is like I’m ashamed of it. Like I’ve learned a lot of humility through like making mistakes and so forth. I can have a lot more humility but it is very difficult to learn I think without that… The cup is full, you can’t put anything new in. And I do feel like a lot of my students they come in to a leadership class and they are like you know, “I’m already a great leader.” I’m like, “You’re 20 years old. You don’t even know what you don’t know yet.” Well, none of us do. How do we get people to learn… How do I put it? I mean myself included of what we don’t know, of what it takes to… Do you get what I’m asking?
Tim: No, I do understand. I mean I think a level of humility is important in any leader. And I think that the good leaders that are humble have probably either started out that way or if they didn’t, they were humbled along the way because they recognize that we don’t have the capacity to be perfect and that work 100 percent reliant on the people that we have within our charge to follow us and the best leaders recognize that the way you do that is to build and gain the respect of the people that you work with.
Joshua: That’s putting them first is such a big thing. Actually, I was kind of wondering. I’m going to transition over to astronaut stuff, if that’s OK.
Joshua: And it’s like in preparing for talking to you I was like I don’t want to ask the questions everybody has asked. I think that’s impossible not to. But I am going to transition a little more smoothly because I was just speaking with an Air Force guy and asking about what it’s like being at F-16. Yeah. And he’s like, “I’m there to defend the nation. It’s not about speed. It’s about I have mission.” which caught me off guard. It was obvious when he said it. You know it’s the taxpayers. That’s what… The citizens… And so I’m thinking what’s the mission to be an astronaut. It’s not defense of the nation. And I’m kind of curious… I presume that you’re in service. I’m not sure. But what drives you? Is there a mission? Are you in service?
Tim: No. It’s a great question. I think it really goes to the fundamental aspects of what motivates people in general. And I think that one aspect that is a huge motivator is being part of something that’s bigger than ourselves. And I think that most people recognize that the ability for us to put people in space and to sustain life and in the case of their national space station and conduct experiments that will be lifesaving and life improving here on planet Earth is a really big thing. And I think that every crew member, especially those who go to space station spend a lot of time there recognize the team aspect of what we do because we’re at the very pointy end of the spear but there’s you know tens of thousands of people that make that happen and they’re reliant on us to do the best we can and we’re relying on them to take care of us and to keep us alive. And so it’s humbling but it’s also just a phenomenal privilege to be able to work with that kind of team.
Joshua: Yeah. I just try to imagine it. Who didn’t want to be an astronaut growing up?
Tim: I have no idea. I did. I mean every six-year-old kid, I think when I was a little boy wanted to be an astronaut. Completely unrealistic goal but…
Joshua: Sometimes these things happen.
Tim: Sometimes. Yeah. When you grew up, you must have been watching astronauts in the space race. And then you’re sitting next to a Russian. I think you end up next to the Russians into the Soyuz.
Tim: Yeah. I flew with Yuri Monica. He was the commander of the Soyuz and I was his co-pilot but…
Joshua: What a switch. I mean they were the enemy and now they’re partners.
Tim: You know one of the things about NASA training and preparation for living and working on board their national space station is this really integral part of us working with our international partners and very specifically the Russians because they’re our means of getting to space. They are effectively the largest other partner because they have their own mission control that’s operational and not just science based. And we rely on them to get to space and in order to make that work we started learning Russian language very shortly after getting to NASA. I’ve spent months living with a Russian family, hours upon hours of learning Russian language, time and museum when I was living with the Russian family and part of the cultural component. All my classes were in Russian and my training was in Russian. The operations, the exams I had were all in Russian. And so after spending that much time associated with my cosmonaut colleagues and living in Russia you know we have a very strong understanding of the culture, the people, the language, how they think. So to me it felt completely natural that aspect.
Joshua: Well, it’s great to hear because cultural change is hard. And what you described to me was a major cultural shift. In your case it felt very natural or it became natural in the end.
Tim: Well, as natural as it can be not being a native Russian speaker. But from the cultural aspect I think it was a very gradual and effective process. Russian language and that’s a whole different story, that’s a tough language. It’s only like the first ten years that are hard I’ve been told.
Joshua: Only the first ten years.
Joshua: All right. Now I have to ask… I’ll give a couple of things. I can’t help but ask. And if you’ve answered them a million times and you’re bored with it, sorry. And if you don’t answer, that’s fine. But I’m like the three big things are sitting in the spaceship before it launches. What does that feel like? During the launch. I was reading you went to 250 miles up in like a couple of minutes, like eight minutes. So the acceleration and the shaking I imagine it must be insane. And then I really got something that I hear, I’ve read astronaut speaking about looking at the Earth from space and often it is something about the biosphere of this thin little layer. And then there’s this vastness of space. And it’s incredible to hear. And I can’t imagine the experience of it. And are these things that you have said so many times that you are bored of it? Or is it something that you don’t get to say that much or…?
Tim: No. I mean it’s a great question. I mean it’s a relatively common question but it’s one I think that people want to know because it is so different than most people’s experience space. And frankly it’s kind of hard to describe certain components of it. But the launch aspect, especially with the Soyuz it was my second flight and so you know you feel like you’ve cheated death after you’ve been to space at least once. And so you know perhaps you’re not even thinking about that so much and it kind of depends on your role within the space ship. In the case of the Soyuz launch as the co-pilot I am much more concerned about not making a mistake and doing my job than I am about the risk to life and limb whereas you know in the shuttle launch I was on the mid deck for the flight that I took…
Joshua: And that was the six-month one?
Tim: That was that. So my very first flight was in 2009. I launched on space shuttle Endeavour. I spent two months on board space station. I came home on the next shuttle which was Space Shuttle Discovery and so on that flight when I flew, I was on the mid deck with not many responsibilities and so a lot of opportunity to think about the fact that you know people have perished exactly where I’ve been. And having watched the power and the magnitude of the launch from the outside and then be on the inside and going through that it’s a little bit surreal and a lot of time to think about it. But the experience for both of those in terms of the visual content is very similar and that is you launch, you can feel the rumble and then you can sense when you’ve left the launch pad and you’re also watching the clock, you’re watching as a co-pilot in the Soyuz I’m watching all the indications to make sure that at least that component of the flight regime has happened normally. And then after a couple of minutes the strap on boosters are jettisoned. In fact, thankfully that worked well for us although as we know about a month ago it didn’t work so well and the crew thankfully came home safely. So a big milestone. Those strap on boosters at first stage is separated and then it’s a series of stages until eight and a half minutes later you’re in space and you’re not exactly at the 250 miles yet. You’re about 80 or 90 miles but then you go from this pretty strong G force of about three and a half Gs to no Gs and all of a sudden you’re floating.
The interesting aspect about going the second time is that your body and your brain completely remembers this experience as having spent two months on board space station before and having lived in space and become fully adapted to zero gravity it didn’t feel normal but it also didn’t feel as foreign as it would have the first time because the first time it was definitely more significant. And then we’re so busy frankly on the Soyuz flight after those eight and a half minutes we’re going to do four orbits around the planet, each one is 90 minutes and after that we’re going to execute rendezvous and docking to space station. So we’re really focused on getting our job done and as the co-pilot just making sure that all my responsibilities are covered. But yeah, it is a very bizarre thing even the second time to be able look out the window and see that you’re getting farther away from planet Earth and then eventually docking to space station crawling through the hatch and floating onto this orbiting laboratory.
Joshua: Wow. I mean you’re just giving the play by play. It’s hard not to just… I can’t put it into words. I mean it sounds awesome but awesome is an overused word.
Tim: You know it’s interesting. You’d asked about the effect of looking out on the Earth. The first time I went out back in 2009 I remember looking out the window and it’s almost like too much for your brain to handle because it’s something you’ve never seen before. And to be there it really feels surreal in that you know you’re in space, you know you’re looking down the planet but it takes a while for your brain to process this and for it to be part of your normal experience. And even once it does, I think one of the most dramatic things, I mean the Earth is absolutely gorgeous and as you mentioned this thin little veil that protects us and sustains life on our planet. But when you look out in the black of space it really gives you chills because you know that it goes forever. It’s kind of like when you’re scuba diving if you look out in the water and you look out into that dark mass when you’re scuba diving and you can’t see anything but you know it goes as far as it goes but when you look out into space and you see that black it really gives you chills because you know it goes forever and also gives you this really clear sense that we are very, very alone. Like the science fiction movies where the stars are flying by and you go from one planet to the next. It’s not like that. Nothing is close. Everything is very, very far away.
Joshua: Does that lead you feel like we only have each other?
Tim: I think that it definitely gives you this sense that we are alone and to the extent that we’re alone we are together. We have what we have and that’s it.
Joshua: It just feels like words can’t describe. It’s really the limit of what…Is it at the limit of what language can convey, beyond it?
Tim: Yeah. I mean having to use words to describe emotional content is tough, right? It’s like trying to describe a smell, there’s like the smell of space, we’ll talk about it like. I listen to my crew members talk about what it smells like. And I would think, “That’s not what it smells like.” You know emotional content is pretty much the same in that it’s like how do you describe looking down on the planet and this phenomenal beauty and diversity and phenomena that just is unbelievable. Like I mean a couple of experiences that I mean that don’t really describe it well enough but the Bahamas are absolutely the most stunning beautiful place on the planet and you can look at that pictures and photographs and say, “Wow, it’s really pretty.” But man, when you see it in person, I mean it just like it no kidding takes your breath away. There’s one time I was trying to get this photograph of Nashville and we’re going at seventeen thousand five miles an hour and it’s kind of hard to pick out a city in the daytime because you don’t have a lot of good landmarks. It’s kind of funny it’s hard to find a city but you have your orbital path and you have this city and so I took a bunch of photographs. I love taking photos. And before I knew it, we’re flying right over the Bahamas and no kidding was just stunning. I just gasped because it was so pretty. There’s a lot of places on the planet that are like that.
Joshua: So when I think of the Bahamas from the Earth I think of seeing a boat like in water so clear that you can’t even see… Is it that you can just see through the water to the underneath?
Tim: It’s the coral formations that make these beautiful patterns. The two places I think on the planet with the most beautiful coral reefs the Bahamas and actually off the coast of Mozambique. There was this one time flying over Mozambique and same sort of experience and taking these photos unbelievable, just blew me away. And then the next orbit we were pretty close to the same place but the sun had hit it and it completely transformed the way that it looked. It looked like this sheath of rippled silver that was covering the coral formations I’d just seen before. So one lap it was blues that they’re just indescribably beautiful. The next lap around the Earth it’s like this silver sheath with glistening coverage on the ocean, just blew me away.
Joshua: It’s funny because when I think of like a sunset or forests or the ocean that look really beautiful from Earth, I think we’ve really evolved to find these things beautiful because it was in our environment. If you find puppy’s beautiful like we bred dogs to look beautiful. It’s not obvious that the Earth from space would be beautiful because we… There’s nothing in our evolutionary past or anything that would make it that way and yet it sounds like it’s beautiful beyond compare.
Tim: I think that we see beauty in nature and whatever that nature happens to be whether it’s from the viewpoint of international space station or from your backyard watching a sunset I mean it’s really looking at that nature and the world around us and our ability to appreciate that.
Joshua: One of things I was thinking about when I was reading some of your descriptions online is I think people a hundred years ago probably felt like flying was the most amazing thing and they probably would have talked about it somewhat similar to how you’re talking it being from space. But I think today a lot of people they fly and they are just complaining the whole time and you know I always try to look out the window and appreciate something like, “We’re flying!” And do you think people have gotten jaded about something? I think a lot of people have lost this feeling of how amazing flying can be. For that matter how amazing a vegetable can taste.
Tim: You know when you don’t have a tomato for a few months and you have one on board station when one of the kind resupply vehicles packs a few, that’ll give you an appreciation for a tomato.
Joshua: You know one of the things I also thought about is that you guys have to live incredibly sustainably over there. I mean the supplies aren’t frequently coming and you can’t go to the other fridge. And a lot of people talk about how difficult it is to live sustainably here. But here’s something I hear from them a lot, “We’ve got to get to Mars because we might mess things up here.”
Tim: There’s no air on Mars. It’s a ridiculous notion to think that Mars is a better place to live than planet Earth. I’ll just say that out there.
Joshua: I also feel that way. I mean I believe our ingenuity can probably overcome a lot of things.
Joshua: If the idea is that we can’t live sustainably here to live not sustainably somewhere else sounds crazy but also we have to get there in some space ship that’s got to be… If we can be sustainable there, why don’t we think that we can be… Why would we not do that first here? That’s me rhetorically asking, not really asking but… I don’t know. You have to live very sustainably up there. You have to recycle everything. I mean not just recycle. Like everything gets repurposed. Is that right?
Tim: No, I wouldn’t say that. I mean there’s inefficiencies where we can still make improvements. I mean clearly, we try to maximize all the elements of our life support. We have to scrub our CO2, we generate oxygen from water. We recycle the water. The coffee you had this morning is a coffee you have the next morning kind of deal. And so we’re very conscious about that because it’s very, very expensive to get supplies to space station. But you know we package food with two layers of plastic and we have foam that is flipped up in excess to protect for launch loads. We could probably do better there. There’s ways that we can be more efficient there. But you know we work really hard at trying to improve the processes.
Joshua: Well, let’s transition over the environment then, if that’s cool.
Joshua: When you think of the environment what do you think about? Is it something you care about? Is it something that mean something to you?
Tim: Yeah. I mean definitely. I’m one of the few people that has this appreciation for the Earth from the viewpoint of looking down at it from space you know and I fully appreciate that. And I think you know a friend of mine, for example, said, “Hey, there’s this mass of plastic in the ocean that’s the size of Texas.” I mean that kind of made my stomach turn. And I look for it. You can’t see it because it’s below the surface. But the fact that we’ve put that much plastic in the ocean really disturbing. And I think you know one of my primary motivators from the business that I work in now but you know we focus on improving efficiencies and energy using technology so using data analytics and Internet of Things and machine learning but applied to all sorts of energy whether it’s oil and gas or wind, solar for energy storage. And I think that in some ways, in many ways actually, it contributes to maybe in a small way to making things better from an environmental standpoint because the greater that we are able to make our energy expenditures and use more efficient, then the less we need. And so far nothing is free, even windmills or the wind turbines have negative economic effect or negative ecological effect. So I mean we have to be careful across the board. But I definitely have concerns about it. And I think about it.
Joshua: So what I picked up is a mix of beauty that you have a rare experience of seeing and experiencing and at the same time I think you said stomach turning of some of the things that we’ve done affecting that beauty and also an active role of you doing things to not just be… I don’t know if it’s being more efficient yourself or bringing efficiencies to places to reduce our use of…
Tim: I think what we do… I mentioned before that I think one of the big motivators for most people is or it can be a motivator is doing something bigger than themselves. And I feel that to the extent that we can empower companies to provide these efficiencies that is a fundamental good. And you know there’s economic reward there but I think there’s ecological and environmental benefit too. So it’s nice to be able to couple those.
Joshua: One of the things I do on this podcast is I ask people at their option to act on the things that they care about. Most people it seems have something that they’ve been thinking of or not everyone and I wonder if you’d be interested in taking on something to act on what you’re talking about. It could be the beauty, it could be the stomach turning, it could be the adding efficiencies but there a couple of things that I say before you answer. It doesn’t have to fix all the world’s problems all by yourself overnight. I’m not asking you to save anything but just to act on your values. And it can’t be telling other people to do. It can’t be something you are already doing but something measurable. So not just awareness or…
Tim: Yeah. This is a really small thing and I’m glad you said you’re not going to save the world because no individual is going to save the world but I’m not even certain this is really a huge contributor but it’s something that I feel that I’ve been opting to share and that is to produce some of the photos that I took from space station in the right format and the right quality that gives people at least a glimpse of what I was able to see and perhaps it gives people a better appreciation for how beautiful our planet is and how special it is. So if I can pass that on I think that would be meaningful for me personally.
Joshua: So when you say do you mean put them online or do you mean…?
Tim: Oh. they’re all posted online. I think you know just maximizing the way that they’re portrayed in terms of the quality of the paper, the glasses used, the size, the processing for the photo and you know providing those maybe in the format of an art gallery or in a book I think that would be something I’d love to do.
Joshua: You know when I got my PhD there was a show in a gallery in New York. And don’t remember the author’s name. I bought a beautiful probably post 6-foot tall photograph. Now they can make them easier. But yeah, it is a view of space and it happened at a satellite crossing the path so there was this green line right in the middle of it. And it was just stunning. I gave it as a gift to one of my classmates just as a kind of goodbye to astrophysics because I was going to become an entrepreneur. Yeah, it really made an impression. A part of me is thinking is the impact is not lowering your environmental impacts but it might still be a really big deal anyway.
Tim: Yeah. I think that you know art has a way of affecting how we think and feel and in term perhaps act so to the extent that people appreciate the environment maybe a little bit more clearly as a consequence of seeing its beauty. I think that’s a positive.
Joshua: Well, part of the reason of making it a SMART goal is what I’d like to do is bring people back a second time and how their experience went which presumably for you would be seeing the expressions on people’s faces as they look at the works you’ve created. So I’d love to at least put a time part on it so we could schedule a second time to be on.
Tim: Next year. How’s that?
Joshua: A year from now?
Joshua: Okay. I maybe be back in Houston then.
Tim: That sounds good. Maybe I’ll be at SpaceCom again.
Joshua: That would be cool. And I’d like to close with a couple of questions. I could go on by the way for a long time. Actually, there’s one thing I’m going to put as a question that I’m not going to ask you to answer unless you really want to. But you know there are all these things called rebound effects where making things efficient sometimes leads people to use more of something. And it’s something having my science background it’s something that I think I can understand a little more than the average person. I think it’s something troubling me is that I’ve been working on creating a lot of efficiencies but if that leads people to use more of it, then sometimes it increases the use, it increases the pollution. So it’s something I’m thinking of and I don’t have a clear question there.
I’m going to close with this that… I don’t want to sound like a fanboy but it’s such an amazing experience and I’m really glad that you shared it. And I don’t think you can convey everything in it, in that experience but to me it’s made a big impression on me, certainly as a boy growing up wanting to be an astronaut. That’s really cool. But also reading astronauts’ experiences of viewing what you described of that thin layer of the biosphere and the vastness of space. And I hope that that’s something that people get the impression, something like what I get out of it… To me I took away… We got each other. There’s no second chance and it’s something beautiful. It’s a tremendously beautiful gift that we have. And I think you’ve seen the beauty that many of us don’t but I hope that we get to see that beauty in different ways. I really appreciate you sharing that with us. You took big risks going up there. You’ve helped defend our nation. You’ve shared with us… I don’t know. Just thank you very much.
Tim: Well, thanks, Joshua. I appreciate that.
I couldn’t help but ask Tim after recording if I ask the same questions everyone does. He said, “Yes, it’s pretty hard to avoid.” I still loved hearing his answers. You know before flying seeing the Earth from hot air balloons was incredible. This was over a hundred years ago, a hundred and fifty years ago, something like that. Then flying came around and hot air balloons weren’t so special. Now people look at flying, they’re not that into it. It seems like a hassle. Maybe one day seeing Earth from space will also seem not that incredible. You could get jaded from something like that but I’d look at it the other way – if people could once see beauty in flying, since so can we. If they could once see it in balloons, so can we. It’s everywhere. I try to find that beauty of nature in everything. I try to find it in the basil plants, on my windowsill. I try to find it in every little thing that I can. Then I feel every part is worth saving. It’s worth working on. That’s my big takeaway. I may never see Earth from space but I can see that beauty in every drop of water. I still can’t wait to see his gallery show soon.
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