By Jim Diamond
Four years after making its historic ride into space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery in early 2011, the Pekka Rinne jersey that flew aboard mission STS-133 has returned to Nashville courtesy of Colonel Tim Kopra (U.S. Army, Ret.), the man who was responsible for its out of this world flight.
Tim Morrell, Kopra’s brother-in-law and day one Predators season ticket holder, had the idea to send the Rinne jersey into space on Discovery, an idea sparked by Canadian astronaut Julie Payette, who brought a Maurice Richard Montreal Canadiens jersey along on STS-127, which was Kopra’s first space flight.
Morrell thought the Rinne jersey would be apropos, since Kopra’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Finland in 1914.
“I’m very proud of the fact that my grandparents came over from Finland way back in 1914 and I grew up with this knowledge of my Finnish heritage,” Kopra said.
In his first trip into space, Kopra brought along a Finnish Kalevala Medal, sent to him by then Finnish president Tarja Halonen. Upon his return, he presented the medal back to the president.
Kopra said that following their retirement, his parents spent a year in Finland researching their genealogy and established connection with several relatives while they were there.
“Now I have 60-70 close or feel-close relatives that live in Finland,” Kopra said. “We had an opportunity after I flew in 2009 to go over there and it was like this family reunion of all these people that I had never met that were actually my blood. After that, I gained a huge appreciation for my Finnish heritage.”
Kopra has gained an appreciation of hockey through Morrell and his wife Beth. Beth Morrell and Kopra’s wife Dawn are sisters. The Morrells brought the Kopras to their first-ever hockey game in 2007 in Nashville.
After several months of delays, STS-133 took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida Feb. 24, 2011, only Kopra was not aboard Discovery when it launched. Prior to the flight, Kopra broke his leg in a bicycling accident, a lower-body injury that meant he had to be scratched from the mission.
“If you have to pick particular lows in a professional career, that would be about as low as you can get because in our business, everything you do is focused on your space flight,” Kopra said. “I’m grateful that it didn’t happen on my first flight because I think it would be even more devastating, but to lose a fly opportunity especially after there have been flight attempts and you are trained up and you are ready to go and you are the lead spacewalker, it was fairly devastating.”
Kopra was unable to fly on Discovery, but the personal items he had arranged to go into space on the mission, including the dark blue Rinne jersey, did make it.
Devastating as it was to not go, Kopra was still able to assist with the mission from the ground. He said the accident also opened the door to his next flight. Launching in November, he will be a flight engineer for Expedition 46 and the commander for Expedition 47, a mission that will keep him in space for six months aboard the International Space Station.
On this trip, Kopra is anticipating there being at least two spacewalks, something he called “a pinnacle” of space flight.
“It’s eye-watering because when you open that hatch, you look down at the planet and it is moving at five miles a second,” he said. “You have to have complete trust in the space suit that you have and your training.”
Asked if he had always dreamed of being an astronaut, Kopra said, “I didn’t think about it until I was about six. It’s really interesting, for a lot of people in our office, they were motivated at a very young age. Something about having a dream that’s captured when you are young really takes you.”
By the time he had reached 18, Kopra thought that the goal of being an astronaut was unachievable. But during Kopra’s first, or plebe, year at the United States Military Academy at West Point, several Apollo astronauts who had graduated from West Point spoke at the school. After hearing them speak, Kopra realized that his childhood dream was achievable.
Kopra is set to meet Rinne following Saturday’s morning skate at Bridgestone Arena. Later that evening, Kopra will drop the puck for the ceremonial faceoff prior to Nashville’s game against the visiting Buffalo Sabres.
Kopra has ties to the Nashville area. For three years, he was stationed at Fort Campbell as a member of the 101st Airborne Division.