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After a year in space, NASA astronaut reflects on the unexpectedly long trip

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio holds the record for the longest U.S. space flight, but he wasn't trying to earn that title. In September 2022, Rubio was deployed to the International Space Station along with two Russian cosmonauts. It was supposed to be a six-month mission, but their original ride sprung a coolant leak while docked to the station. That 180-day mission turned into a 371-day stay.

Rubio returned to Earth in September 2023, and he's on the line with us now. Welcome back to Earth. Is it too late for me to say that?

FRANK RUBIO: Hey, Ari. Thanks so much. It's great to be with you. And, no, it's always - feels great to be welcomed back.

SHAPIRO: You know, when you go to space, there is a whole team making sure everything goes right, checks and re-checks and backup plans. But still, things happen. So how did you feel when you found out that you would be in space six months longer than you had expected?

RUBIO: You know, it was initially kind of challenging. But again, we were very, very assured of the fact that the team was going to take care of us. And ultimately, they came to the conclusion that the safest path forward was to send a new spacecraft up. You know, it was challenging because you knew you'd be away from your family longer than anticipated, but you also knew that they were making the right decision as for our safety. And so that obviously made it a little bit more palatable. And bottom line is we're all mission focused. And we knew that's what needed to happen to make the mission happen. And so once you got over the initial shock and surprise, you just kind of focused on making the best of it and making sure that the mission was accomplished.

SHAPIRO: For most of us, a mechanical challenge means we have to - I don't know - stay home from work for the plumber for a day or something like that. This feels like a really big deal. In that moment when you found out what was happening, were you scared? Like, can you take us into how it felt on that day?

RUBIO: Yeah. You know, well, so first of all, there was no imminent sense of danger because you do take that spacecraft up to the space station. But once you dock, essentially the space station itself becomes your safety vehicle. But you do always have to have a way to get home in case something goes wrong. And so your spacecraft, whether it be a Soyuz or a Dragon, essentially is parked on station so that if anything were to happen, you can quickly get in and get yourself safely back home.

And so for the month or two that the damaged Soyuz was up there, we knew that we were essentially without a completely safe vehicle. But at the same time, you know, the station has been operating for 23 years, and a safety vehicle's never been necessary in the past. And so even though you had that in the back of your mind, there was no imminent sense of danger. And ultimately, the fact that the team was able to say, hey, we're going to launch an entire new spacecraft to come get you was a pretty big deal because that's not an inexpensive endeavor.

SHAPIRO: Right.

RUBIO: And so we felt grateful for the fact that they were willing to do that. And, yeah, ultimately, it worked out well.

SHAPIRO: What did you miss most about life on Earth?

RUBIO: Well, my family for sure. And then, you know, I love the outdoors. And so that was actually really challenging because the space station is great, but it is very small. And it's a very enclosed space. You know, we say it's about the size of a two- to three-bedroom house, but really it's a two- to three-bedroom house composed entirely of hallways, right?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

RUBIO: And so there's no large room that you can go and just enjoy a little bit of space. And, you know, our crew quarters, which is really the only privacy you have, is about the size of a small phone booth. And so, yeah, you do have to just be disciplined about the fact that - not to focus on the fact that it's so enclosed. And then the rest, you know, again, it's really such a incredibly unique experience that you don't really focus on the fact that you're in outer space, that you're traveling at 17,000 miles per hour, you know, the fact that the walls are less than a half-centimeter thick, all those things. Although if you think about them, they could seem really dangerous. I think we all just accept that that's the place where we're operating and that it's, you know, worked well for 23 years.

SHAPIRO: What was it like coming home?

RUBIO: It was fantastic. Yeah. And it was honestly - one of my favorite experiences was just the whole process of de-orbiting and appreciating the engineering and the science that goes into making sure that that happens safely every single time a crew comes home is pretty special, right? It all has to work perfectly right every single time and it has to this point. And so essentially becoming a meteorite yourself as you're reentering the Earth is pretty incredible.

SHAPIRO: And, I mean, there were so many, like, first time in months that you have fill in the blank. Is there one that especially stands out?

RUBIO: Yeah. You know, again, we stay really clean up there. You basically do a towel bath every day that you're up there. But taking an actual shower with running water for the first time felt incredibly good.

SHAPIRO: I bet.

RUBIO: And that's something that I had been looking forward to.

SHAPIRO: OK. So I have to ask about the tomato...

(LAUGHTER)

RUBIO: Of course.

SHAPIRO: ...Because while you were on the ISS, you harvested the first tomato grown in space. That tomato went missing. The story got a lot of attention online and in the media. You were at one point accused of eating the tomato. And after you landed back on Earth, the tomato was found, and you were exonerated. But there is still so much we don't know about this story. Can you please set the record straight for us? What happened?

RUBIO: Yeah. You know, it's kind of funny because everyone talks about being exonerated. I'm always like, wait, that means you didn't believe me in the first place.

(LAUGHTER)

RUBIO: And I guess just to clarify, you know, my two friends that did find the tomatoes, they are really good friends of mine. And so they were taking every opportunity to make fun of me, not to get me out of trouble that I was in. But, yeah, you know, stuff happens in microgravity. Things just float away. And the Ziploc that I thought was secure to the wall wasn't, and it just floated away. And, I mean, we lose things all the time, but 99% of the time, you end up finding it, whether it's a couple hours later, a few days later. I lost some AirPods for about three weeks, and then one day they just - there they were floating near the Cupola.

SHAPIRO: I'm shocked there are places a thing could disappear into in the International Space Station. It seems so well organized, like every square inch is accounted for.

RUBIO: Yeah. You know, it's - again, it's a small space, but we fill it with every imaginable thing. And so it is very cramped, lots of nooks and crannies. And you'd be amazed with the airflow how things just tend to crawl into, like, the most unexpected places. I'm glad my buddies found it. The unfortunate part is that, you know, it is - it was a science experiment. And so I did feel bad that we lost that little bit of science. And I don't know that they're going to be able to use the ones that they found for much of anything.

SHAPIRO: Pomodoro, maybe.

RUBIO: (Laughter) Yeah. They're pretty far along. They're not going to be used for much.

SHAPIRO: NASA has been studying the effects of long-term spaceflight on humans for a while now, and you now hold the record for the longest spaceflight for any American astronaut. So how do you feel physically and mentally? I mean, you've been back on land for a few months. Are there lingering effects?

RUBIO: Fortunately, again, I'm kind of glad that this happened when it did, which means 23 years into the program, because we've kind of figured out how to keep humans healthy up there. One of the biggest things being resistance exercise because we found that the biggest effects were really on our musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems. And so doing strength training and doing cardiovascular training really keeps us in pretty good health. I actually lost less bone density than a lot of the six-month missions used to lose in the past. And that's just because every day you're putting in the work and you're kind of consistently doing that throughout the year.

So I actually felt really, really good when I got home. The only things that kind of hurt were my lower back, and that's a little bit expected just because, you know, even though you're strengthening it, it's really not used to keeping your posture every single moment of the day. And then the bottoms of my feet actually hurt quite a bit. And that's, you know, you really can't train that. And the pressure and the sensitivity that comes with standing and walking was a little bit unexpected. But that's all resolved. And yeah, I feel - I'd say I'm about 90 to 95% back to perfectly normal.

SHAPIRO: That is NASA astronaut Frank Rubio. Thank you so much.

RUBIO: Great talking to you. Thanks so much. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.