CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Alumnus Michael S. Hopkins, a U.S. astronaut who recently spent 166 days orbiting Earth in the International Space Station, will deliver the Commencement address at the University of Illinois on May 17 (Saturday).
Hopkins, who earned an aerospace engineering degree at Illinois in 1991, graduated from NASA's astronaut candidate training program in 2011. In March he touched down on Earth after orbiting the planet more than 2,500 times and participating in two space walks.
He said he is eager to return to the U. of I. campus, where he was a walk-on member of the Illini football team and eventually one of its captains.
"The total experience at Illinois - both the educational and the social side - really made me feel like a member of a larger team," he said of his undergraduate experience, "and being a part of the team is a big part of what we do at NASA."
Despite his high-tension adventures in space and test-flying military aircraft as a colonel in the Air Force, Hopkins concedes he's apprehensive about giving the keynote address at Commencement.
"I'm as nervous as I was going out on that first spacewalk," he said. "I'm still getting comfortable with speaking in front of a large group of people - and there's still a little bit of disbelief that they would consider me."
Hopkins said the location of the 9:30 a.m. ceremony - on the field of Memorial Stadium this year because of ongoing renovations at State Farm Center, the usual venue - is particularly poignant for him.
"I was a walk-on, so I started out on the practice squad and worked my way up," he said. "I learned to never give up - one more lick, one more day - and I was willing to stick with it. It was very similar to becoming an astronaut."
Hopkins, who is from Richland, Mo., earned his master's degree at Stanford University. He applied for nearly 12 years before being accepted in the astronaut program and was serving as a special assistant to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon when he got the call asking him to join NASA.
"I wouldn't be sitting here, just having returned from space, without the University of Illinois," he said.