Rubio Hits 365-Day Mark in Space, Eager to Get Home

Rubio Hits 365-Day Mark in Space, Eager to Get Home

Today Frank Rubio becomes the first U.S. astronaut to spend one year in space. Others have come close, but the 365-day mark has been met by only four other humans until now, all Russians. Two more Russians are joining the list along with Rubio, Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin. The trio arrived on Soyuz MS-22 last year and had to stay an extra six months after that spacecraft suffered a technical failure and had to be replaced, with a resulting change to the crew rotation schedule.

Rubio spoke with reporters on Tuesday about the challenges of having his mission duration unexpectedly doubled. An Army Lt. Colonel, he is fulfilling his mission as required, but misses his wife and four children and can’t wait to get home and hug them. He’s also looking forward to the peace and quiet of his back yard instead of the incessant hum of fans and other equipment on the ISS.

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio aboard the International Space Station, July 23, 2023. Credit: NASA

He’ll return to Earth on September 27 with Prokopyev and Petelin.

Their replacements, cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub and NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara arrived last week on Soyuz MS-24. O’Hara will return after six months, but Kononenko and Chub will remain for a year as part of the mission plan.

Staying in space for a year was a surprise for Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin. Their mission plan was for all three to come home after six months, but their Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft lost all its coolant and was not safe for the return trip. Soyuz MS-23, originally intended to launch the Kononenko crew, had to be sent up empty as a replacement. Kononenko’s crew had to wait another six months to fly while Rubio and his two Soyuz crewmates were stuck on ISS. Russia builds only two Soyuz spacecraft a year.

Rubio acknowledged that the psychological aspect of long-duration spaceflight was “more of a factor than I expected,” but credited his family, crewmates and the ISS support team on the ground for helping him through it. “Personally it was an incredible challenge,” but he tried to “stay positive” and “steady throughout the mission despite the internal ups and downs.” “Ultimately every day you have to show up and do the work and up here in this very unforgiving environment we have to do things right.”

Asked if he would have agreed to a year-long stay if he’d known in advance, Rubio said not if that was the plan from the beginning, but if he was already in training, yes.

“If they had asked me up front before you start training, because you do train for a year or two years for your mission, I probably would have declined. I would have hurt, but I would have declined and that’s only because of family things that were going on this past year. And had I known that I would have had to miss those very important events, I just would have had to say thank you, but no thank you.

“But once you commit to the mission, once you’re part of the training and really all the assets and all that preparation that go into you, the mission kind of counts on you. So I think if I had found out before launch, but essentially well into the training cycle, I would have been committed to the mission because ultimately that’s our job. And we have to get the mission done. And you know, having the International Space Station going for 23 years requires a lot of individual and family sacrifices.”

The ISS will celebrate 23 years of permanent occupancy on November 2.

A 1998 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy where he was a member of the Black Knights parachute team, Rubio later earned an M.D. from the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and was a battalion surgeon for the Army’s 3rd Battalion of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) when chosen for the 2017 class of NASA astronauts. This is his first spaceflight.

Rubio said it’s an honor to be the first American to reach the 365-day mark, but he just was “lucky to have gone a couple extra weeks” more than Scott Kelly, Christina Koch, and Mark Vande Hei and the credit doesn’t go to him alone, but everyone aboard ISS and on the ground. “It’s really something that as a team we’re going to take a lot of pride in.”

Scott Kelly and Russia’s Mikhail Korneinko completed a widely publicized “Year-in-Space” mission in 2015-2016 that actually was only 340 days, not 365.  At that point, the longest continuous U.S. spaceflight was 84 days on the first U.S. space station, Skylab, in 1973-1974. Mark Vande Hei set a new U.S. record of 355 days in 2021-2022 when he also got a double tour-of-duty, although he knew in advance it was likely. In 2020, Koch set a world record for continuous time in space for a woman of 328 days. Both Koch’s and Vande Hei’s missions were extended so Russia could send tourists to the ISS and both seemed happy to spend the extra time there.

The record for total consecutive days in space is held by cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov who spent 438 days aboard Russia’s Mir space station in 1994-1995. Sergei Avdeyev spent 380 days on Mir in 1998-1999. Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov spent 365 days together on Mir in 1987-1988.

Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin will surpass Titov and Manarov by the time they land, with 371 days under their belts.

Soyuz MS-22/MS-23 crew L-R: Dmitri Petelin (Roscosmos), Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos), Frank Rubio (NASA).  Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Three previous Soviet/Russian space stations — Salyut 6, Salyut 7 and Mir — and now the ISS house permanent crews that rotate on roughly 4-6 month schedules and often have visitors for shorter durations creating a constant ebb and flow that helps reduce the monotony of life in a confined space about the size of a 5-bedroom house. Rubio said he’s had 28 crewmates over his year in space.

One purpose of the ISS is learning how humans adapt physically and psychologically to the space environment as a prelude to longer missions to Mars. The proximity to Earth makes ISS only a partial analog, however. Astronauts can get home in a few hours if needed, supplies can be sent at regular intervals, the communications time-delay is insignificant, and crews are protected from damaging galactic radiation. Another major difference is there will be no greeting of newcomers or wishing others farewell. When a Mars crew leaves Earth, they will have only themselves for company for two years or more.

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