A NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts returned to Earth Wednesday after being stranded in space for just over a year. American Frank Rubio set the record for the longest American space flight – the result of his extended stay.
The trio landed in a remote region of Kazakhstan, descending in a Soyuz capsule that was quickly replaced after their initial trip was hit by space debris and lost all of its coolant while docked with the Station international space.
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 was launched in February. Russian engineers suspect space debris punctured the radiator of their original capsule late last year, midway through what should have been a six-month mission. Engineers feared that without cooling, the capsule’s electronics and possible occupants could overheat to dangerous levels, so the craft returned empty.
There was no other Soyuz to launch a new crew until this month. Their replacements finally arrived almost two weeks ago.
“No one deserves to go home to their family more than you,” the new space station commander, Dane Andreas Mogensen, said earlier this week.
Prokopyev told ground controllers throughout the descent that all three felt good. They experienced more than four times the force of gravity as their capsule passed through the atmosphere and landed on the arid steppes of Kazakhstan, ending up on its side. Helicopters intervened with recovery teams to recover the astronauts.
“It’s good to be home,” Rubio said after being removed from the pod.
Rubio, 47, a military doctor and helicopter pilot, said at a news conference last week that he never would have agreed to a full year in space if he had been asked up front. He ended up missing important family milestones, including the oldest of his four children finishing his freshman year at the U.S. Naval Academy and another going to West Point.
Rubio had said the psychological aspect of spending so long in space was more difficult than expected. He could keep this record for a while. NASA has not currently planned any missions lasting more than a year.
It was Rubio’s first space flight and Petelin, 40, an engineer. Prokopyev, 48, engineer and pilot, has now completed two long stays at the station.
They have traveled 157 million miles (253 million kilometers) since their launch from Kazakhstan last September and have circled the world nearly 6,000 times.