NASA astronaut Frank Rubio considers himself 'incredibly lucky' after accidental 1-year ISS stay

a man in a spacesuit is smiling
NASA astronaut Frank Rubio expected to spend six months in space, but a fault in his spacecraft doubled his stay to 12. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio says spending an extra six months in space made him better at the job than before.

Rubio, who unexpectedly spent more than a year on the International Space Station (ISS), did periodic self-assessments to be more efficient as his time in space accrued, he told during a livestreamed press conference Friday (Oct. 13) from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"I was able to ... see what things things I had done well, what things I had done poorly and try to improve on those for the next half of the expedition," Rubio said. He emphasized that he still wasn't perfect but was "incredibly lucky in the fact that you're able to take those lessons learned and immediately implement them. A lot of people have to wait five, six or 10 years [for a second mission] until they are able to implement those things that they just learned."

Rubio accidentally broke a U.S. record for spaceflight, spending 371 continuous days in space after his Russian Soyuz spacecraft sprung a leak in December 2022 while docked to the ISS. After a complicated series of spaceship schedulings, Rubio and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin safely arrived home on Sept. 27 in a replacement craft, six months past their originally planned arrival date.

Related: After 1 year in space, what's next for an astronaut? 'Peace and quiet' on Earth, Frank Rubio says (video)

The leak that stalled Rubio's Soyuz was the first of three coolant problems for Russian ISS hardware in the last year. Following that incident, a Progress cargo spacecraft sprang a leak in February 2023, also during Rubio's mission; the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos has said both Rubio's Soyuz and the Progress were likely damaged by micrometeoroid strikes.

A new coolant leak arose this week with Russia's Nauka module as well. A 13-year-old backup radiator on the two-year-old science hub ejected coolant into space on Monday (Oct. 9) for reasons that are still unclear. Nauka remains working well and the leak has stopped, but the event delayed two U.S. spacewalks as NASA took precautions, preferring to wait until Russia continues its investigation.

Rubio said his military background helped in adjusting to the extended stay, and he had perspective from other "friends and family that have been under much more duress and much more difficult conditions" while serving the country.

"It was somewhat difficult to feel sorry for myself in that situation, but that's not to say we didn't have a couple of hard days," he said. But as Rubio and his family absorbed the news, help came through. "The community around us was just, gosh — they had so much, prayers and support. It was really almost overwhelming, how much love and support we've received. So from that perspective, it made it incredibly easy."

"Unfortunately, I don't have a whole lot of detail on the most recent, third incident," Rubio said of the Nauka leak. "If they do happen to be related," he added, "maybe there's a change in the environment for them (the leaks) to happen this relatively close together."

Mission controllers in both Houston and Moscow, he emphasized, "are doing an incredible amount of analysis to going get to the root cause. And like they did for us, they're going to come up with a great plan to make sure that crew safety is paramount to everybody on the team. That just overrides everything."

While much of Rubio's time in space was spent dealing with the unexpected, there was still time for a little fun. Rubio provided an update on a missing (and ziplocked) dwarf tomato he accidentally lost on-station shortly after the harvest, when it unexpectedly floated away. 

Despite "18 to 20 hours of my own time looking for that tomato" — a figure he may have been exaggerating for humor's sake — it never showed up. 

"The reality of the problem, you know — the humidity up there is like 17%. It's probably desiccated to the point where you couldn't tell what it was, and somebody just threw away the bag," Rubio lamented, laughing. "Hopefully somebody will find it someday: a little, shriveled thing."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: