After Their Ride Got Hit by Space Junk, 3 Are Finally Home

Astronaut Frank Rubio, 2 cosmonauts return after more than a year in space
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 27, 2023 11:30 AM CDT
This Guy Is Now the American Who's Been in Space Longest
A Russian Soyuz MS-23 space capsule descends about 90 miles southeast of the Kazakh town of Zhezkazgan, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. The Soyuz capsule carrying NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, touched down on Wednesday on the steppes of Kazakhstan.   (Roscosmos space corporation via AP)

A NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts returned to Earth on Wednesday after being stuck in space for just over a year. As the AP reports, American Frank Rubio set a record for the longest US spaceflight—a result of the extended stay. The trio landed in a remote area of Kazakhstan, descending in a Soyuz capsule that was rushed up as a replacement after their original ride was hit by space junk and lost all its coolant while docked to the International Space Station. What should have been a 180-day mission turned into a 371-day stay. Rubio spent more than two weeks longer in space than Mark Vande Hei, who held NASA's previous endurance record for a single spaceflight. Russia holds the world record of 437 days, set in the mid-1990s.

The Soyuz capsule that brought Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin back was a replacement launched in February. Russian engineers suspect a piece of space junk pierced the radiator of their original capsule late last year, midway through what should have been a six-month mission. Engineers worried that without cooling, the capsule's electronics and any occupants could overheat to dangerous levels, so the craft returned empty. There wasn't another Soyuz to launch a fresh crew until this month. Their replacements finally arrived nearly two weeks ago. "No one deserves to go home to their families more than you," the space station's new commander, Denmark's Andreas Mogensen, said earlier this week.

Prokopyev told ground controllers throughout the descent that all three were feeling good. They experienced more than four times the force of gravity as their capsule streaked through the atmosphere and came to a touchdown in the barren Kazakh steppes. Helicopters moved in with recovery crews to fetch the astronauts. "Rubio's record ride comes to an end," NASA commentator Rob Navias said from Mission Control in Houston. Rubio, 47, an Army doctor and helicopter pilot, said at a news conference last week that he never would have agreed to a full year in space if asked at the outset. He missed important family milestones including the oldest of his four children finishing her first year at the US Naval Academy and another heading off to West Point.

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Rubio said the psychological aspect of spending so long in space was tougher than he expected. "Hugging my wife and kids is going to be paramount, and I'll probably focus on that for the first couple days," he said. Rubio may hold on to this record for a while. NASA has no plans as of now for more yearlong missions. It was the first spaceflight for Rubio and Petelin, 40, an engineer. Prokopyev, 48, an engineer and pilot, has now pulled two long station stints. They logged 157 million miles since launching from Kazakhstan last September and circled the world nearly 6,000 times.

(More astronauts stories.)

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