Army Lt. Col. Frank Rubio returned to Earth after accomplishing a feat no American before him ever achieved.
The soldier-turned-NASA-astronaut landed back on solid ground in Kazakhstan after spending 371 days in low Earth orbit, earning him the record of the longest single spaceflight by an American.
He surpassed the previous United States record of 355 days on Sept. 11, which was held by NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei. Russia holds the world record of longest single spaceflight at 437 days, set in the mid-1990s, according to the Associated Press.
But the yearlong trip among the stars was not planned to be quite so lengthy.
Rubio launched with two cosmonauts aboard Roscosmos Soyuz MS-22 on Sept. 21, 2022. The crew expected to stay only six months, but the spacecraft experienced a coolant leak that resulted in an extension of their mission.
At a recent news conference, Rubio said that if asked beforehand to spend a full year in space, he likely would have politely said no.
“If they had asked me up front before...training, because you do train for a year or two years for your mission, I probably would have declined,” he said, while floating aboard the International Space Station. “It would have hurt, but I would have declined and that’s only because of family, things that were going on this past year.”
As the United States looks toward exploring further in space, including eventual manned missions to Mars, prolonged journeys outside Earth’s atmosphere filled with various challenges for the isolated astronauts may become more regular.
“Frank’s record-breaking time in space is not just a milestone; it’s a major contribution to our understanding of long-duration space missions,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
Born in California, though he considers Miami, Florida, his hometown, Rubio graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1998, according to his NASA bio. He served as a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter pilot and flew more than 1,100 hours, including about 600 during deployments to Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. He also earned his jumpmaster certification and has conducted more than 650 freefall skydives.
“The Army has singularly provided unique opportunities for me, but I think — more important than that and more than the experiences themselves – is the adaptability that you build,” Rubio said last year in an Army release. “We have, as soldiers, just become incredibly resilient and adaptable because you have to — you never know what’s coming at you.”
At the time of his selection with NASA, Rubio was serving as a battalion surgeon for the 3rd Battalion of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Carson, Colo.
He and his fellow crew members conducted several scientific experiments during their year in space, including on how bacteria adapt to spaceflight and on using water-based and air-based techniques to grow tomato plants.
“For me, honestly, obviously, I think hugging my wife and kids is going to be paramount, and I’ll probably focus on that for the first couple days,” Rubio said, when asked about his plans when returning home.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media