Eleven days before Christmas last year, a micrometeoroid struck a Soyuz spacecraft docked to the International Space Station. This ruptured the vehicle’s cooling system, creating a dramatic spray of coolant for hours into space before there was none left.
Prior to this accidental strike, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio had been planning to come home by around spring break of 2023 to see his wife, Deborah, and four children. For his debut spaceflight, six months in space was enough for the former helicopter pilot and flight surgeon.
But eventually Russian and US engineers determined that the Soyuz spacecraft that he and two Russian crewmates—cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin—had flown to the space station may not be safe for the return journey home. The crew compartment was likely to overheat. So that damaged vehicle was flown home without anyone on board, and a replacement Soyuz flew autonomously to the station.
An unexpected challenge
That vehicle, Soyuz MS-23, was to have carried three crew members to the station. But since it was empty, it fell to Rubio and the two Russians to complete the mission that the original occupants of Soyuz MS-23 were to have fulfilled. Accordingly, Rubio was told he would have to fly not one, but two six-month increments.
“It was unexpected,” Rubio said Wednesday, aboard the space station. “In some ways it’s been an incredible challenge.”
Because of the Soyuz leak, Rubio has now become the NASA astronaut with the longest continuous period of time in space. Last Monday, he broke the 355-day record set by Mark Vande Hei in 2021 and 2022, and when he lands later this month, Rubio will have spent 371 days in space.
During a video call with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, Rubio said he had missed some important moments over the summer of 2023, including a college graduation and a son heading off to West Point. However, he said he has enjoyed the extra time in space.
Rubio and his Russian colleagues have been in space for so long that they will have lived and worked alongside 28 colleagues from various nations, including Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Five different Crew Dragon missions have visited the space station during Rubio’s tenure—Crew 4, Crew 5, Crew 6, and Crew 7, as well as the private Axiom 2 mission.
“Just having that diversity up here was such a unique feeling,” Rubio said.
Keeping his body healthy
A flight surgeon who earned a doctorate of medicine from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Rubio said he worked hard to maintain his physical fitness in space. His exercise routine consists of about 75 minutes each 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 toil that spending so long in microgravity can take on human bones, muscle strength, and other parts of the human body that 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 return,” Rubio said.
Before the call, Nelson praised Rubio for willingly undertaking the year-long mission.
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 grace and professionalism. We are grateful for the great science he has carried out on his record-breaking stay and can’t wait to welcome him home in a couple of weeks.”
NASA says that data from missions like that flown by Rubio will assist the space agency as it plans for long-duration missions beyond low-Earth orbit. Perhaps Rubio, 47, who joined NASA in 2017, will be among the astronauts flying one of them.