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Exciting Time to be at NASA: USU Alumnus, Army Doc Heads to Space

Image of Close-up of an astronaut. U.S. Army Astronaut Lt. Col. (Dr.) Frank Rubio successfully launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, aboard a Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, Sept. 21, for a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. (Photo: Courtesy of NASA)

(Editor’s Note: U.S. Army Lt. Col. Frank Rubio, a doctor and NASA astronaut, today launched to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz MS-22 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, as a flight engineer and member of NASA Expedition 68. Rubio joins crewmates Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin for the 250-mile trip into space. Watch the crew prepare for launch, on NASA’s video.)

For U.S. Army Lt. Col. Frank Rubio, it's an exciting time to be at NASA. The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences class of 2010 graduate, who was selected in 2020 to be among the first team of astronauts to return to the moon as part of the future Artemis mission, headed to the International Space Station on Sept. 21 as a flight engineer for NASA's Expedition 68 − USU’s second alumnus to go to space in the past three years.

If you listen to Rubio talk about his upcoming launch, excitement seems to be the predominant theme.

"We're fully ready to go, and we're excited about the mission," Rubio said during a recent press conference. "It's an incredibly important mission. Our partnership between NASA and Roscosmos [the Russian space agency] has been ongoing for a long time, and it's really been a good and strong relationship."

Rubio will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan on Soyuz MS 22, under a United States-Russian integrated crew agreement that sends him into space now, while Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina joins NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada on the Dragon Endurance for a launch into space from Florida later this year. Rubio will be joined by Russian cosmonauts Sergei Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin aboard Soyuz.

[Related article: Army Officer Part of Newly Resumed Cooperation for International Space Station]

"I think this crew swap really represents the ongoing effort of tremendous teams on both sides and amazing people that made this happen. I think it's important that when we're at moments of possible tension elsewhere, that human spaceflight and exploration − something that both agencies are incredibly passionate about – remains a form of diplomacy and partnership, where we can find common ground and keep achieving great things together," said Rubio, alluding to the Russian-Ukraine conflict.

"We all get along great. They've become good friends of mine. Sergei is a former Russian Air Force pilot. Dmitri is an engineer, but more importantly, they've gotten to know my family, I've gotten to know their families. We all have similar priorities − family comes first. Our main focus is to make this mission happen as safely and productively as possible to ensure we get everything tasked to us done. I always say that no matter where we're from, if more people just go to know each other, I think we'd be very pleasantly surprised at the commonalities that we have and how well we get along together."

Rubio, a Florida native of Salvadoran descent who was selected for the astronaut program in 2017, has been in Russia for a few months, continuing the intense training necessary in preparation for the mission to space. He described the rigorous preparations that will help him adjust to the gravitational forces he will face during launch and the return to Earth.

"The most common training we get is in the T-38 jet aircraft, which is a supersonic high performance jet. Just being able to fly that on a regular basis provides amazing training. Because I'm assigned to the Soyuz, I've had a chance to train in Russian centrifuges, and those provide possibly the most realistic training in the sense that they can dial it down to exactly the type of forces that you'll be feeling during your mission profile," he said.

Rubio said the last couple of weeks before launch include simulation training primarily in the Soyuz and the Russian segment of the International Space Station.

"We'll have final exams on them. They are all-day events. Then they'll take a day full of normal things and possible emergencies that could happen and make sure we're trained and ready to go. Once we pass those, we head down to Baikonur. We'll continue to train for the mission and then transition to quarantine and spend more time as a crew together. We'll continue to bond and hopefully get to see our families during the last week or so. Unfortunately, during quarantine that can be limited exposure to family, but we will hopefully get to see them. And then we launch."

Separating from his family is the toughest part, Rubio said. "I've got an incredible family. They've all stepped up to the plate and really made this as easy as possible for me. It's been a challenge, but we've all gone at it with a positive attitude and try to just embrace with it represents."

USU alumnus and NASA astronaut, U.S. Army Col. (Dr.) Andrew Morgan is with the Rubio family for the launch in Kazakhstan. Morgan, who was USU's first graduate in space, went to the International Space Station in 2019 as part of Expeditions 60, 61, and 62 in July 2019. He spent 272 days in space, returning in April 2020. Rubio served as the escort for Morgan's family at his launch. According to Morgan, "it's the greatest honor an astronaut can have in support of their colleagues."

[Related article: Army Col. (Dr.) Andrew Morgan, is the First Uniformed Services University Graduate and Army Physician to Become a NASA Astronaut.]

Rubio travels 250 miles into space to reach the International Space Station. Once there, he'll learn whether or not he'll participate in space walks.

"We spent a ton of time training for EVAs, or spacewalks. All of us are excited to hopefully participate in those," he said. "There are four incredibly talented crew members on the USOS side who are all fully trained and we'll all be excited for each other regardless of who's doing what. We'll do our best to support each other and make sure we have success in everything we do up there."

Part of what he'll be doing up there are research experiments.

"There are some really neat biological experiments that I look forward to, obviously, because of my background. A biofabrication experiment will be up there, and the possibilities that this represents of being possibly able to produce human organs would just be phenomenal in our capability to deal with human disease back here on Earth. Those types of things are just − sometimes they’re mind blowing. When you think about the fact that we get to participate in a small but significant way in helping to make those a reality it is truly exciting," Rubio said, describing an experiment for USU's Center for Biotechnology (4DBio3) program, Fabrication in Austere Medical Environments.

Rubio will be performing follow-up work for a meniscus bioprinting experiment.

Rubio will also be helping out with research looking at whether a healthier diet affects performance in space. He said he'll be consuming some "really great food that includes lots of Omega 3s and lots of foods high in vitamins."

"I'm excited about being part of that experiment, excited about food that we'll eat up there. The good thing about being an Army astronaut," Rubio said, "is that I'm used to eating MREs (meals ready to eat) quite a bit being out in the field, so I think that's prepared me well for my six months on station."

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Last Updated: July 11, 2023
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