After 1 year in space, what’s next for an astronaut? ‘Peace and quiet’ on Earth, Frank Rubio says (video) (Image Credit: Space.com)
NASA astronaut Frank Rubio is about to do what no other American has done before: Celebrate an entire year in space.
The record-breaking NASA astronaut spoke to reporters from the International Space Station on Tuesday (Sept. 19), just two days ahead of the 365-day mark for his current mission. The Salvadoran-American physician, born in Los Angeles, also paid tribute to the mentors in the military and at NASA that helped him reach space.
“You have the opportunity to work with a tremendous breadth of great individuals (in the military), and I’ve seen the same at NASA. I think it’s in every community, not just the Latino community,” Rubio told Space.com, speaking during National Hispanic American Heritage Month.
“As a nation, I think we need to stand up more. More men and women need to stand up and be role models for the younger generation. Ultimately, the reality is none of us are perfect. I’m especially not perfect. I think the importance of role modeling is to show effort, attitude, and when you mess up, admitting it. Admitting your mistakes, and showing that resilience to do so, and then get better after that.”
With an expected landing date of Sept. 27, Rubio and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin will surpass 371 days in orbit and be among only seven people who have spent more than a year in space. They weren’t supposed to be here this long; a six-month mission transformed to 12 after their ride home sprung a leak in December.
Rubio, on his first flight, was only halfway through his expected six-month stay when his MS-22 spacecraft quickly lost all its coolant on Dec. 15, 2022, prompting the cancellation of a spacewalk by already-suited-up cosmonauts. In the following weeks, Roscosmos and NASA together went through multiple spaceship options. The Russians elected to rapidly send up an empty replacement Soyuz, MS-23, which docked with the ISS on Feb. 25.
In case of an ISS emergency before the MS-23 arrival, Rubio did have an alternate escape plan: A temporary seat using tie-down straps on the floor of an already docked and fully occupied SpaceX Crew Dragon. Prokopyev and Petelin were authorized to use MS-22 if really needed, as two humans would not heat up the uncooled spacecraft as rapidly as a full crew of three.
While this emergency scenario fortunately did not come to be, Rubio and his crewmates still had to alter their 2023 plans. Instead of six months in space, they would spend more than a year waiting for their relief crew to arrive. (The relief crew needed yet another spacecraft, MS-24, to roll off the assembly line and their training was not finished in time for the accelerated shipment of MS-23, their original ride to space.)
Rubio told reporters that if he had been asked ahead of time to spend a year in space, he would have said no due to important family events; during his extended stay in space, his oldest child finished off her first year at the U.S. Naval Academy, while his second-oldest began training at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“One thing that I’ve tried to do, and hopefully have achieved — I certainly haven’t done it perfectly — is to stay positive and stay steady throughout the mission, despite the internal ups and downs,” Rubio said, noting the job of an astronaut is to serve ISS staffing needs as required. “You try to just focus on the job and on the mission and remain steady. Because ultimately, every day, you have to show up and do the work up here in this very unforgiving environment.”
Fortunately, the delayed liftoff of the MS-24 crew went exactly as planned. Loral O’Hara and Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub safely launched and docked to the ISS on Sept. 15 and are now undergoing standard handover procedures before Rubio and his crew come back home.
Meanwhile, Rubio wrapped up essentially double the science as planned, ranging from tomato harvests (his share unfortunately floated away before he could eat a bite) to autonomous robots to microgravity studies of bubbles. He also did three critical spacewalks to upgrade ISS power systems.
Rubio’s record easily exceeds the previous 355-day mark set by NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei. Vande Hei’s stay was also extended in space to a year, but he had been warned before launch that space station staffing needs might necessitate a change. Vande Hei spoke with Rubio earlier this month from NASA’s Johnson Space Station in Houston during a conversation reflecting on the two record-setting efforts.
The four other people who have spent longer than 365 days in space were all Soviet cosmonauts visiting the then-Soviet Mir space station: Valery Polyakov (topping the list at 437 days), Sergey Avdeev, Musa Manarov and Vladimir Titov.
Rubio said besides hugging his wife and children, after getting back to Earth he is most looking forward to hearing silence in his backyard. On the ISS, he said, “We have a constant hum of machinery that’s keeping us alive. It’s very important, but it is just a constant hum … so I’m looking forward to just being outside and enjoying the peace and quiet.”