An astronaut who has broken the U.S. record for the longest continuous time spent in space will return on Sept. 27, concluding more than a year at the International Space Station.
NASA's Frank Rubio will fly back on a Russian spacecraft with two cosmonauts, Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, all of whom were stranded in low-Earth orbit when their planned ride home, a Soyuz capsule docked at the space station, sprung a coolant leak in December 2022. The puncture, thought to have been caused by a micrometeoroid smaller than a sharpened pencil tip, temporarily rendered the trio without a lifeboat.
NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos extended the crew's expedition by another six months as they sorted out Plan B. Both determined the leaky capsule would be unfit to bring the three men home, potentially causing them to overheat during reentry into Earth's atmosphere. The crew will come back to Earth in a replacement Soyuz capsule that was sent up empty for the ride home.
"The psychological factor was more of a factor than I expected," Rubio, who is also a medical doctor, said during a call with reporters Tuesday.
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To maintain his mental health, Rubio, 47, said he stayed in regular contact with his wife and four children and relied on his crew for support during tough times. He also tried to find a balance between work and relaxation.
"Staying busy but not too busy," he said.
The protracted mission means Rubio spent 371 straight days in space, the longest single spaceflight for an American. The Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov still owns the record for most consecutive time in space, at almost 438 days, but it surpasses U.S. astronaut Mark Vande Hei's previous record of 355 days, set last year.
Despite the Russia-Ukraine war and geopolitical tensions between Russia and the United States, the two nations' space agencies have continued to work collaboratively at the space station.
Joel Montalbano, NASA's space station program manager, said in January the crew had taken the news well that they wouldn't be coming home any time soon.
"I may have to fly some more ice cream to reward them," he said at the time.
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Had Rubio known before he started training that his spaceflight would end up taking him away from his family for more than a year, he would not have accepted the mission, he said.
"I just would have had to say, 'Thank you, but no thank you,'" he said.
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Rubio was born in L.A., and considers Miami, Florida, his hometown. He joined the 2017 NASA astronaut class and launched aboard Roscosmos' Soyuz MS-22 on Sept. 21, 2022. This was his first journey in space. Rubio is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
While in orbit, Rubio conducted combustion research and participated in multiple human health studies. But his favorite science experiment involved tending to space tomatoes.
To watch the astronaut's departure from the space station live, head over to NASA TV on the agency's website, starting at 12 a.m. ET on Sept. 27. The ship is expected to leave its space station dock at 3:51 a.m. Coverage of the landing will begin at 6 a.m. ET.