Frank Rubio has inadvertently set a new record for the longest time in space by an American. The NASA astronaut who returned to Earth on September 23, 2023, was supposed to have been at the International Space Station (ISS) for 180 days. Instead, he was stuck there for 371 days. Rubio's time in space surpasses Mark Vande Hei's US spaceflight record of 355 days set in 2022. Russia holds the world record of 437 days, set in the mid-1990s.
Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin launched into space aboard the Soyuz MS-22 on September 21, 2022. The trio was expected to spend six months aboard the ISS and return home in February 2023.
However, in December 2022, a small piece of space junk hit the parked Soyuz spacecraft. The impact punctured the radiator, causing a coolant leak. Engineers deemed the vehicle unsafe to fly the astronauts home. So, the spacecraft returned to Earth with scientific specimens and other cargo.
An empty Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft arrived at the ISS on February 25, 2023, to bring the astronauts home. But Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petelin had to wait for a fresh crew to take over their duties. Unfortunately, the Soyuz vessel to transport the replacement astronauts was not ready, resulting in a six-month delay.
At a press conference held after his return, Rubio said he would have never agreed to go on a year-long space mission. The extended trip was more mentally challenging than the astronaut had expected. It also caused the 47-year-old to miss important family milestones. They included his oldest child completing her first year at the US Naval Academy and another heading off to the West Point Military Academy.
Rubio's hardships have not gone unnoticed. "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," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "Our astronauts make extraordinary sacrifices away from their homes and loved ones to further discovery."
Nelson also added that NASA has no plans to send US astronauts on year-long space missions. This means Rubio can hold on to his record for a long time!
Resources: Space.com, NASA.gov, theguardian.com, nbcnews.com