NASA astronaut reveals stress of longest U.S. spaceflight

Frank Rubio spent 371 straight days off the planet.
By Elisha Sauers  on 
Frank Rubio taking a space selfie
NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, the record holder for longest American spaceflight, poses for a selfie in space. Credit: Frank Rubio / NASA

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.

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.

Frank Rubio suiting up for rocket launch
NASA astronaut Frank Rubio dons his spacesuit ahead of a rocket launch to the International Space Station in September 2022. Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls

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.

Frank Rubio boarding spacecraft for a mission to International Space Station
Expedition 68 crew members Frank Rubio, center, and cosmonauts Dmitri Petelin, top, and Sergey Prokopyev, bottom, board the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft for launch on Sept. 21, 2022. Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls

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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.

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.

Topics NASA

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Elisha Sauers

Elisha Sauers is the space and future tech reporter for Mashable, interested in asteroids, astronauts, and astro nuts. In over 15 years of reporting, she's covered a variety of topics, including health, business, and government, with a penchant for FOIA and other public records requests. She previously worked for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, and The Capital in Annapolis, Maryland, now known as The Capital-Gazette. Her work has earned numerous state awards, including the Virginia Press Association's top honor, Best in Show,  and national recognition for narrative storytelling. In her first year covering space for Mashable, Sauers grabbed a National Headliner Award for beat reporting. Send space tips and story ideas to [email protected] or text 443-684-2489. Follow her on Twitter at @elishasauers.

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