Tensions between the United States and Russia are high. But next month, one NASA astronaut will rise above them — literally.
Army Lt. Col. Frank Rubio, a NASA astronaut, is set to fly to the International Space Station with two Russian cosmonauts, Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 21.
The planned flight on the Russian Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft comes as the United States has poured tens of billions of dollars in aid into helping Ukraine fight off Russia’s invasion and has instituted hefty sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs. In July, Yuri Borisov, the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, announced that Russia would withdraw from the ISS — a symbol of U.S.-Russian collaboration — after 2024.
But these geopolitical concerns have not prevented the crew from getting along, Rubio said in a news briefing Monday.
“They’ve become good friends of mine,” he said. “Sergey is a former Russian Air Force pilot, Dimitry is an engineer, but more importantly, you know, they’ve gotten to know my family. I’ve gotten to know their families. We all have very similar priorities… Family comes first, and then our main focus is to make this mission happen as safely and productively as possible to ensure that we get everything that’s been tasked us done.”
Crewing expeditions with both Americans and Russians has been common practice for flights to the ISS, the largest space station. The United States and Russia worked together to build the ISS in the 1990s, as a gesture of post-Cold-War solidarity. So Russia’s planned withdrawal from the space station sends a strong message to the United States.
Before launching, Rubio and his fellow crew members will have a packed few weeks of training and examinations, as well as a quarantine for COVID-19. They will “hopefully” get to see their families, Rubio said, albeit in a limited way because of COVID restrictions.
Then the crew will launch.
“I feel proud,” Rubio said. “I think all of us probably feel a little bit nervous, just because of the sense of responsibility that we have for everything that’s involved in this.”
In space, the crew will help conduct scientific experiments. Some will have implications for biofabrication, the artificial creation of biological products — an area that Rubio, a medical doctor, said he is especially excited about. The crew may also get to perform a spacewalk. And their meals, loaded with Omega-3s and vitamins, will be part of an experiment on healthy eating in space.
“The good thing about being an Army astronaut is that I’m used to eating MREs quite a bit being out in the field,” Rubio said. “And so I think that’s prepared me well for my six months on the station.”
NASA tapped Rubio as an astronaut candidate in 2017.
The Miami native served as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in the Army, flying more than 1,100 hours, including in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a NASA news release. He then earned his medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, and became a battalion surgeon.
This will be Rubio’s first spaceflight.
“Just to be one of the very incredibly lucky and blessed few that get to do this, it’s a humbling feeling,” he said.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.