NASA astronaut Frank Rubio is helped out of the Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft just minutes after he and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin, landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. The extended mission means that Rubio now holds the record for longest spaceflight by an American. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
A NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts returned to Earth on Wednesday after being stuck in space for just over a year. American Frank Rubio set a record for the longest U.S. 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, ending up on its side. Helicopters moved in with recovery crews to fetch the astronauts.
“It’s good to be home,” Rubio said after being pulled from the capsule.
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 ended up missing important family milestones including the oldest of his four children finishing her first year at the U.S. Naval Academy and another heading off to West Point.
Rubio had said the psychological aspect of spending so long in space was tougher than he expected. He 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 (253 million kilometers) since launching from Kazakhstan last September and circled the world nearly 6,000 times.
By MARCIA DUNN AP Aerospace Writer
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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