Eleven days before Christmas last year, a small meteorite struck the Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. This ruptured the car’s cooling system, creating a dramatic spray of coolant for hours into space before there was nothing left.
Before this accidental strike, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio was planning to return home by spring break 2023 to see his wife, Deborah, and four children. For his first space flight, six months in space was enough for the former helicopter pilot and flight surgeon.
But eventually Russian and American engineers decided that the Soyuz spacecraft that he and two Russian crewmates — cosmonauts Sergei Prokopyev and Dmitry Petlin — transported to the space station might not be safe for the trip home. The crew cabin temperature was likely to rise. So the damaged spacecraft was flown home without anyone on board, and a replacement Soyuz spacecraft flew independently to the station.
That vehicle, Soyuz MS-23, was scheduled to carry three crew members to the station. But since it was empty, it fell to Rubio and the Russians to complete the mission that the original occupants of Soyuz MS-23 were scheduled to accomplish. Accordingly, Rubio was told that he would not have to travel by air, but twice, every six months.
“It was unexpected,” Rubio said Wednesday aboard the space station. “In some ways this has been an incredible challenge.”
Because of the Soyuz leak, Rubio is now NASA’s astronaut with the longest continuous period of time in space. Last Monday, he broke the record of 355 days set by Mark Vande Heij in 2021 and 2022, and when he arrives later this month, Rubio will have spent 371 days in space.
During a video call with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Deputy Administrator Pam Milroy, Rubio said he missed some important moments during the summer of 2023, including graduating from college and his son heading to West Point. However, he said he enjoyed the extra time in space.
Rubio and his Russian colleagues have been in space so long that they lived and worked alongside 28 colleagues from different countries, including Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Five different Crew Dragon missions visited the space station during Rubio’s tenure – Crew 4, Crew 5, Crew 6, and Crew 7, as well as the special Axiom 2 mission.
“Just having that diversity here was a unique feeling,” Rubio said.
Maintaining the health of his body
Rubio, a flight surgeon who earned his doctorate in medicine from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, said he worked hard to stay fit in space. His exercise routine consists of about 75 minutes a day on a resistance machine, which mimics weightlifting activities, to maintain his bone density. Additionally, he spends 30 to 45 minutes a day on a stationary bike or treadmill for cardiovascular activity.
Rubio knows the effort that spending a long time in microgravity can wear down human bones, muscle strength and other parts of the human body that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to live in Earth’s gravity. “As a doctor, I’m really excited to see how my body does when I get back,” Rubio said.
Before the call, Nelson praised Rubio for willingly taking on the year-long assignment.
“Working and living on the International Space Station is the opportunity of a lifetime, but there is no doubt that it also requires sacrifice, especially time away from friends and family,” Nelson told Ars. “Frank handled the unexpected delay in his return with kindness and professionalism. We are grateful for the great science he did during his record-breaking stay and can’t wait to welcome him home in two weeks.”
NASA says Data from missions like Rubio’s will help the space agency plan long-duration missions beyond low-Earth orbit. Rubio (47 years old), who joined NASA in 2017, may be among the astronauts piloting one of them.
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