Just before last Christmas, an event shook the International Space Station (ISS). A micrometeorid hit a Soyuz spacecraftdamaging the cooling system and causing coolant to leak into the space.
NASA astronaut Frank Rubiowho had planned to return to Earth for spring break 2023 to reunite with his wife Deborah and his four children, had to revise his plans. This was supposed to be his first space flightand six months seemed like an appropriate length for this mission.
However, Russian and American engineers concluded that the Soyuz that carried Rubio and two Russian crew members to the space station may not be safe for the return journey. There was a risk of the crew compartment overheating. Then, the damaged Soyuz was sent home without any occupants, and a spare Soyuz was autonomously sent to the station.
But here begins the incredible part of this story. The backup Soyuz spacecraft, designated Soyuz MS-23, was supposed to carry three crew members to the space station. However, since it was empty, Rubio and his Russian colleagues were asked to complete the mission originally assigned to the occupants of Soyuz MS-23. Consequentially, Rubio found himself facing not one, but two six-month stints in space.
This sudden change of plans was a real turn of events for Rubio, who commented: “It was unexpected. In some ways it was an incredible challenge.”
Due to the loss of coolant from the Soyuz, Frank Rubio has now become NASA astronaut with the longest continuous stint in space. It recently surpassed the record of 355 days set by Mark Vande Hei in 2021 and 2022, and when it lands later this month, it will have spent a whopping 371 days in orbit.
During a video call with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, Rubio shared his thoughts and feelings about this amazing experience. She said she missed important moments, such as a graduation and the moment her son left for West Point, during her time in space. However, she stressed that she appreciated the extra time in space.
Rubio will now lead the list of spaceflight endurance records for NASA astronautsan impressive result achieved thanks to his dedication and determination.
During his extraordinary time in space, Rubio and his Russian colleagues had the opportunity to live and work with 28 colleagues from several nations, including Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. During his tenure, the International Space Station hosted five different Crew Dragon missions: Crew 4, Crew 5, Crew 6 and Crew 7, as well as the private Axiom 2 mission.
Keeping the body healthy has been one of Rubio’s main goals during his long stay in space. As a flight doctor with a medical doctorate, he worked hard to maintain his physical fitness. His exercise routine includes 75 minutes a day on a resistance machine, which simulates weight lifting activities, in order to preserve bone density. Additionally, he dedicates between 30 and 45 minutes a day to cardiovascular activity on a stationary bike or treadmill.
Rubio is aware of the effects microgravity can have on bones, on muscle strength and other parts of the human body adapted to live in Earth’s gravity. He said: “As a doctor, I’m really curious to see how my body will behave when I return.”
Before his mission, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson praised Rubio for his willingness to undertake this extraordinary mission. He emphasized that living and working on the International Space Station is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it also requires sacrifices, particularly time away from friends and family.
NASA has indicated that data collected during missions like Rubio’s will be critical for planning future long-duration missions outside of low-Earth orbit. It cannot be ruled out that Frank Rubio, who joined NASA in 2017, could be one of the astronauts involved in such futuristic missions (although we wish him to recover sooner).