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What Spending a Record 371 Days in Space Taught Astronaut Frank Rubio

On Sep. 27, astronaut Frank Rubio, 48, broke the record for the longest continuous spaceflight by an American with his 371-day mission. When he returned to earth, his first meal back was a salad.

“What most of us crave when we get back is fresh food, fresh fruits, vegetables. I kept saying that I wanted a salad,” he recounts. Some may find this surprising, but it was that texture, crunch, and full sensory experience of eating food that he craved most while at the International Space Station (ISS), a football field-sized platform that orbits nearly 250 miles above us.

Rubio’s record-breaking time in space was unexpected, to say the least—his return home was delayed by six months because of a coolant leak on the spacecraft that was originally going to take him home.

The experience, during which he traveled more than 157 million miles as the space station made nearly 6,000 orbits around the earth, was nothing short of incredible.

“It absolutely makes you appreciate the beauty of our earth and appreciate what we're capable of as humanity,” Rubio tells TIME over a Zoom call. “It's all pretty special.”

Nearly four months after landing back on earth, Rubio spoke to TIME about his out-of-this-world experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TIME: Could you start off by talking to me about what a typical day looks like in space when you're there?

Rubio: Space is pretty amazing. You're getting to do something that less than 700 humans have ever been able to do, so every day that you're up there is pretty special. But it is a national and international laboratory and so our primary focus is science. We conduct tons of experiments while we're out there—I think there were over 300 experiments that our crew was a part of while I was up there—so that tends to be your primary focus day in and day out. Also [we] have to put in a lot of time and effort towards maintaining our own bodies because microgravity is not what we are made to do. And so you do a lot of resistance cardiovascular exercises, while you're up there f​​or your own body to maintain your health. Personally, I enjoy exercise, so that time spent during exercise also helps with my psychological health.

And then, you know, it is a 23 year old station. So you spend a fair amount of time performing maintenance on things that either break or just need to be replaced because the time has come. Every once in a while, you get to do some really cool things like a spacewalk or capture a vehicle that's coming in. Every time a vehicle shows up, you have to unload or reload that vehicle. So every day is incredibly busy. But it's pretty satisfying knowing that you're part of a mission that's benefiting all of humanity.

I know you briefly talked about your physical health, and how that helps your mental health. You’ve been in recovery since you came back. What has that looked like for you? How are you doing?

The first two or three months after your return is really focused on [recovery], just kind of reincorporating yourself into earth, your family, and then also rehabilitating your body. You adapt incredibly quickly to being in space, but then unfortunately, the readaptation process back to earth can sometimes be a little bit longer and more difficult. And that's just, I think, because the forces of gravity and the forces at play here on earth tend to have a stronger effect on your body. So it takes two to three months to get yourself back to where you were pre-flight. I'm feeling pretty normal. At this point, I feel like I'm back to 90-95%. So lots of exercise, lots of testing, and science. Ultimately, you become a science experiment yourself while you're out there. And then they have to get all the data post-flight and so you're doing a lot of experiments and a lot of contributions to science from your own body when you first get back.

I can't imagine what it's like to be away from family and friends for such a long time. Could you talk to me about what home means to you and what you did when you were in space to make it feel like home?

You're right. By far the biggest challenge is being away from family, at least it was for me. But the good thing is we've actually gotten pretty good at that. So you're able to use the satellite-based voice-over internet protocol to call [earth] anytime you want when you have free time. And at least once or twice a week you can do a video conference, and so even though you feel like you're separated from your family, you still kind of feel like you're part of that dynamic.

While you're up there when you're busy, you're busy, but otherwise you tend to miss your loved ones quite a bit, so those video conferences really helped me feel like I was still a part of [my family]. My military background [also] helps. Having been on deployments before, [meant] we as a family had experienced that separation in the past. I think it helps my resilience in this experience.

Going back to the actual experience of being in space, what was your first thought when you saw earth from such a distance? Did the Overview Effect—feelings of identifying with humanity and the earth as a whole after seeing the planet from above—affect your point of view?

It absolutely does shift your perspective, in lots of ways. It makes you appreciate how absolutely beautiful our planet is and what an amazing environment it is. But you also appreciate how alone and unique it is. You look out and it's just blackness everywhere else. You see how thin our atmosphere is, you see how fragile the earth appears. There's actually very little land, it's mostly ocean out there, and so it makes you appreciate that we really do need to take care of our landmasses, probably more so than we are at this point—although I do feel like we're heading on the right path.

You appreciate the grandeur of it, the beauty of it. You definitely feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for keeping our planet. You also appreciate how all of the people, without borders and all that—granted, we all have our differences—but we all share one planet. And so you hope that we can continue to figure it out and continue to figure out how to work together so that we're all able to prosper together going into the future.

NASA’s Artemis II mission is sending the first woman and the first person of color to the moon in 2025. Can you talk a little bit about the diversity, equity, and inclusion in the astronaut crew that was, at one point all male and all white?

I think that [mission is] an incredible step forward. Honestly, it's a huge honor that Christina [Koch] and Victor [J. Glover, Jr.] are on their crew. But I think it's important to know that they're incredibly qualified for those positions. They've earned those positions. It is awesome that they are the first woman and the first person of color, but I think that's almost secondary to the fact that their qualifications are just awesome.

Hopefully, as a society, and as humanity we’ll focus more on the fact that this is what all people can accomplish, and we’ll take the focus away from what they are to who they are and what they've been able to do, and what we're all able to do if we kind of set our minds to it and work hard, and are dedicated towards those goals.

The time you spent in space was unexpectedly prolonged, resulting in you breaking the record for the longest continuous time spent by a U.S. astronaut in space. I know that there's an international record. Are you interested in going back and breaking that record?

It was unexpected, for sure, but it's still a great honor to be a part of the team that helped keep moving the needle forward. Ultimately, Scott [Kelly] set the first mark [in 2015], Mark [Vande Hei] subsequently moved the needle forward [in 2022]. I've been able to go a few weeks past that, somebody else will go even longer. It's all really just important to show that with the right protocol in place, we as humanity can live in space for longer periods of time. It's neat to be a little part of history, and I'm confident that the record will be broken again.

I absolutely do want to go back. I don't know if I would want to break the record again, but I hope to be a part of human space flight for a little bit longer for sure because this is an awesome team. I really do believe in the mission. I think what we do for the benefit of humanity is pretty incredible.

If I'm able to go back, great, if I'm not, hopefully, I can be a part of the team and help put somebody else back to the moon and then onward from there.

Do you see a U.S.-China space race going forward, similar to the U.S.-Soviet space race in the 1960s?

I think space provides a great place where all of humanity can prosper for exploration, and for science. We as a nation will probably focus on what we can do, and do the best of our ability to make sure that we're putting our best foot forward and doing so safely, effectively, with a vision of knowing that we want to go back to the moon for a long term presence, and then eventually transition that to Mars.

I think it's important to just really focus on yourself in anything you do and that we do our best. But ultimately, space is a big place. We've shown that space can benefit all of humanity. So we look forward to seeing what all of our international partners, but really all of humanity, can do out there.

The ISS is a 15 nation collaboration. Do you see the future in space as more international? Or do you see the U.S. going at it alone the way we did in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s?

The U.S. has always led and hopefully it will continue to lead, but it's important to have that international partnership be a part of this because ultimatelythis endeavor is for the benefit of humanity.

Does your ethnicity or identity at all shape your work and the honor of you breaking this record?

It absolutely is an incredible honor to represent the Latino community, [and] our nation. We all are who we are because of our heritage, because of our backgrounds. So that's pretty special, when you're in space, knowing that you're bringing a little bit of all of that with you and not just your ethnicity, but your community, your town, your state, all of that shapes who we are. For me, my military background is a huge part of my character and who I am. And so knowing that I represent all of those different groups, and then being able to go into such a unique environment, and bring those groups with me was pretty special.

This is a bit of a silly question, but I've always been curious about what your favorite meal was when you were in space.

I think food is important to a lot of us just in the sense that it shapes our communities, our families, it's how we socialize and so a lot of people wonder about that. I really enjoyed all the food to be honest. The team does a great job because it is important to maintain good nutrition while you're out there. It'd be easy to treat it like a science experiment, but the team does a great job of making that as tasty and appetizing as possible.

I saw an online video of you trying to make a birthday cake. And I thought, wow, it must be such an interesting experience trying to make a meal in space. What was it like?

It's interesting. I'm not a big social media person, but my understanding is that us making that cake actually had more outreach from a numbers perspective than a lot of the science experiments. I think that speaks to the connection that food can make for people. It is actually a very neat science experiment itself, because you have to figure out how to keep all that stuff together in space, so honey, and things like that play a key part in making sure that it's not just a bunch of floating parts.

What was your most memorable moment?

Oh, man, that's a tough one. Honestly, [my trip was] full of favorite parts. Launch was fantastic. As a kid, and then as a pilot, a person launching on a rocket was one of the big dreams of my life. It was everything I thought it was gonna be. And then you get to space and you get to see the earth for the first time. And that's just mind blowing. But then you got to go out and do a spacewalk and the engineering and the exactitude of the process that has gone into that and keeping you alive in a small spacesuit is pretty incredible.

Just the fact that you're able to live in space for a full year is just mind blowing. And then at the end of it, you become a meteorite, to re-enter the earth's atmosphere, and the fact that, again, super smart people were able to get that exactly right is pretty special. So I'd say the whole year was full of just incredible, once-in-a-lifetime type of experiences that hopefully I get to do again.

With reporting by Jeffrey Kluger

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