Frank Rubio Readjusting to Life on Earth with Ease

Frank Rubio Readjusting to Life on Earth with Ease

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio is finding his readjustment to Earth’s gravity after 371 days in space pretty straightforward. Two weeks after landing, he considers himself 100 percent back to normal functionally and 80-90 percent overall. Every astronaut reacts differently to spaceflight, though, so he declined to generalize about what his experience may mean for people staying in space for even longer periods of time, like on trips to Mars.

Rubio and his two Russian crewmates, Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, were only supposed to spend 6 months on the International Space Station, but their Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft leaked all its coolant into space and wasn’t safe enough to bring them home. An empty spacecraft, Soyuz MS-23, had to be sent as a replacement and the crew that was supposed to launch on it to relieve Rubio and his colleagues had to wait for Soyuz MS-24 to be ready.

The ultimate decision was to stick to the usual 6-month crew rotation cadence and launch them in September instead of March. They arrived on September 17 and Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin could finally go home. The trio landed in Kazakhstan on September 27.

The Soyuz MS-23 crew back on Earth, L-R: Frank Rubio (NASA), Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos) and Dmitri Petelin (Roscosmos). Screengrab.

During a news conference on Friday at Johnson Space Center, Rubio said his body had little difficulty understanding he was now back on Earth. Other astronauts returning from long-duration missions tell stories of dropping things because they think they’re still in weightlessness or having trouble walking, but not Rubio.

“I felt really lucky in the sense that there was almost an on-off switch for me in that there was not a lot of confusion between space and Earth. Pretty much as soon as I landed, I think my body understood that I was back on Earth. And so there was never anything like expecting something to float or dropping something that I did.”  — Frank Rubio

He did have vertigo for the first three days, though, and allowed that walking is still a bit painful because the bottom of his feet haven’t been in contact with surfaces for so long. In weightlessness, it’s the top of the feet that get a workout, holding crews in place as they tuck under straps or other places. His lower back also is somewhat sore, but he stressed that he was very careful about staying in shape during his mission to help with the readjustment. An Army doctor, he exercised diligently — astronauts exercise about 2 hours per day — and watched what he ate.

Some astronauts experience deleterious changes to their eyesight because of spaceflight, but Rubio said his eyesight actually improved. The glasses he needed on the ISS were too strong once he got back.

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio working aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

While still aboard the ISS, Rubio spoke frankly about the psychological challenges he faced when the decision was finally made that they would stay that long. Then and again on Friday he credited his family for their resilience and strength, as well as friends and members of the community, for helping him adjust to being away from home twice as long as expected.  “It was almost overwhelming how much love and support we received.” He added that as a member of the military he’s had extensions before as have his friends “under much more duress and much more difficult conditions” so it’s “difficult to feel sorry for myself.”

As for the crews that will be chosen to make the trip to Mars, Rubio focused on the importance of team dynamics, not any particular physical attributes, and stressed he doesn’t mean just the dynamics of the team of the spacecraft, but on the ground as well. For those making the trip, though, “the better you work as a crew, the smoother it tends to go. I was super blessed to have really good crewmates and I don’t know that I could have asked for better for the 12 months I was there.” That’s “incredibly important” not just psychologically, but for “making things happen” because they all help each other. “It wasn’t like magical Kumbaya for 12 months,” but they were able to overcome challenges as a crew and “we all came out better.”

Asked what was the first thing he did when he got back to Houston, Rubio laughed and said NASA took him directly to “the lab and they draw bloodwork and they start doing science studies right away. So you go straight into science mode for the first few hours.”

Rubio now holds the record for the longest continuous spaceflight by a U.S. astronaut.

Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin are part of a very, very small group of people who have spent about a year or more in space without a break. Only two humans have been in space longer: Russian cosmonauts Sergei Avdeyev (380 days in 1998-1999) and Valeriy Polyakhov (428 days in 1994-1995). Two others were there for exactly a year: Russia’s Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov who spent 365 days together on Mir in 1987-1988.

NASA astronaut Christina Koch holds the world record for longest continuous duration in space for a woman, 328 days. 
Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett. Aug 8 2023

Three Americans have gotten close to the 1-year milestone:  Scott Kelly who participated with Russia’s Mikhail Kornienko in a special “Year-in-Space” mission in 2015 that wasn’t actually a year but 340 days; and Christina Koch (328 days) and Mark Vande Hei (355 days) both of whom also ended up on extended missions recently though they knew in advance it might happen.

Koch holds the world record for continuous space duration by a woman. She’s now part of the Artemis II crew that will fly around the Moon next year.

That’s a tiny group of people to study to determine how humans react to long durations in the space environment, which will be important for even longer missions to Mars. Rubio said “You do feel a bit like a guinea pig when you get back, but in a good way.”

During a recent interview, Lisa Carnell told that NASA is looking at tissue chips as a way to get more data about more astronauts without needing to actually send them into space. Carnell is the new Director of the Biological and Physical Sciences Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

The FDA and DARPA have been funding tissue chip research for about a decade and the FDA has approved them as a replacement for animal models for medical research, Carnell said. Tissue chips are devices about the size of a credit card that contain skin cells or blood from an individual and create “induced pluripotent stem cells” that can be converted into “whatever organ you want to look at” such as lungs. Sending these “organ models” to space would be like sending the astronauts themselves. The data would help “further refine some of these risk models” for long duration spaceflight.

The recent Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space noted that tissue chips may “offer an alternative (non-animal, non-astronaut) platform for testing drug efficacy and toxicity” and “help solve the problem of collecting samples from astronauts’ bodies, allowing for research with greater potential for design-of-experiment and replicate trials that establish reliable principles under the severe constraints of space-based research time and mass.”

Perhaps future astronauts won’t have to endure quite so many trips to the lab as Rubio.

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