NASA astronaut Frank Rubio has set a new record for the longest spaceflight by an American. As of today, he has been in space for a full year, working on the International Space Station (ISS). Dr. Rubio broke the old record of 355 days in early September.
Dr. Rubio, who’s 47, is an astronaut who’s trained as a doctor. Before that, he flew helicopters for the US Army.
When Dr. Rubio was sent to the space station last September, he wasn’t planning on setting any records. At the time, he was expected to spend about six months in space.
But last December, a small bit of space rock hit the Soyuz spacecraft that Dr. Rubio and two Russian astronauts had arrived in. The spacecraft’s cooling system was damaged.
That meant that the spacecraft couldn’t be used to bring the astronauts home. Instead, it was flown back to Earth on its own. The three astronauts needed a new way to return to Earth from the ISS.
In February, a new, empty Soyuz spacecraft made its way to the ISS. But there was a catch – that spacecraft was originally supposed to carry new astronauts to replace Dr. Rubio and the Russian astronauts. Since it was empty, the three astronauts would need to stay on the ISS for an extra six months to do the work of the missing astronauts.
For Dr. Rubio, that meant that instead of coming home in March of 2023, he wouldn’t return to Earth until September, 2023.
Dr. Rubio says he was surprised by the extra six months. “It was unexpected,” he said. “In some ways it’s been an incredible challenge.” He said if he’d known ahead of time that he would be away from his family for a year, he might not have gone. He missed several important family events, including the graduation of one of his children.
But Dr. Rubio said the other astronauts he worked with on the ISS made his time there easier. He worked with 28 different astronauts from several different countries.
He also knew he was doing important work. “Once you commit to the mission,” he said, “…the mission kind of counts on you.”
Staying in shape was an important part of the challenge. Dr. Rubio exercised for over an hour every day, using special machines to help keep his muscles and bones strong.
Living in very low gravity can be hard on an astronaut’s body. That’s something NASA is studying carefully as it plans for future missions to the moon and, perhaps, Mars.
Dr. Rubio’s year in space will help NASA learn more about what happens to the body when it spends a long time in low gravity. “As a doctor,” he says, “I’m really excited to see how my body does when I return.”
The previous record for the longest spaceflight by an American astronaut was 355 days, set by astronaut Mark Vande Hei in 2022. Last week, Dr. Rubio broke that record. When he finally returns to Earth later this month, Dr. Rubio will have spent 371 days in space.
Did You Know…?
Dr. Rubio’s record is not the world record. The longest time anyone has ever spent in space at one time is 437 days. That record is held by Russian astronaut Valeri Polyakov.