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Army astronaut with record for most days in space receives rare honor

Col. Frank Rubio is a Black Hawk Pilot, medical doctor, and astronaut.
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Army astronaut
Army Col. Frank Rubio, then a lieutenant colonel, completing a spacewalk on Nov. 15, 2022. Rubio has been awarded the Army Aviation Badge with Astronaut Device. (Photos from NASA and Sgt. Deonte Rowell/U.S. Army)

Army Col. Frank Rubio, who broke the record for the longest spaceflight for an American astronaut, is now one of only three active-duty soldiers awarded the Army Aviation Badge with Astronaut Device

The badge is awarded to soldiers who have completed at least one operational mission to space. Rubio spent 371 days aboard the International Space Station from 2022 to 2023. He and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin were originally expected to spend six months in space, but their mission was extended to just over a year after space debris struck their return capsule, which lost all its coolant.

“What an incredible honor it is to represent the Army,” Rubio said during a ceremony held at the Pentagon on Thursday. “And honestly, the biggest honor for me out of this badge is the fact that to me it’s the ultimate team badge. You absolutely cannot get to space on your own. It takes a team of thousands to get you to space.”

NASA selected Rubio, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador, to become an astronaut in 2017. Between Sept. 21, 2022 and Sept. 27, 2023, Rubio traveled roughly 157 million miles in space – the equivalent of 328 trips to the moon and back – as he circled Earth nearly 6,000 times while aboard the International Space Station. He also spent more than 21 hours outside the station on three space walks.

“It’s few things where you can say ‘my job represents humanity,’ and that is a powerful thing to be a part of,” Rubio said after Thursday’s ceremony. “It’s just such an incredible experience, and to be able to inspire the next generation, contribute to science, technology that we’re developing that’s going to help humanity in ways that we probably can’t imagine right now. It’s a neat thing.”

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Rubio’s mission marked the first time that Americans and Russians had served together aboard the International Space Station since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Rubio said he felt it was a great honor to be part of an effort to restore contact between the United States and Russia in space.

Army Astronaut
Army Secretary Army Christine Wormuth (left) presents Army Astronaut Col. Frank Rubio (right) with the Army Aviation Badge with Astronaut Device. (Sgt. 1st Class Nicole Mejia/U.S. Army)

He also noted that the space station is designed so that it cannot function unless the Americans and Russians work together, adding that he and his two Russian colleagues have become close friends.

“Ultimately, you just focus on the mission,” said Rubio, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1998. “My life depended on both Sergey and Dimitri’s skills, and their lives depended on my skills, and that’s what you focus on. At the time, we thought we were going to live together for six months. It turned out to be a year. You can’t have any distractions to the fact that you have to – all of you – be on your A-game that entire time to make the mission happen.”

At West Point, Rubio was a member of the school’s “Black Knights” parachute team, according to his official biography. He then served as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot, flying more than 600 combat flight hours while deployed to Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Later, Rubio attended medical school at Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland and became a family physician and flight surgeon, serving at Army hospitals and ultimately becoming the battalion surgeon for 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group.

He is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His military awards include the Bronze Star with two oak leaf clusters, Combat Action Badge, Iraq Campaign Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, Air Medal, Army Accommodation Medal with four oak leaf clusters, Army Achievement Medal with four oak leaf clusters, NATO Medal, and The Armed Forces Expedition Medal.

What Rubio’s biography doesn’t mention are his setbacks and the times that commanders and sergeants major had to pull him aside and show him “grace,” he said on Thursday.

“You go out there and you do a lot of great things, and you screw up a lot of great things, but they let you try again, and that’s one of the best things about our organization,” Rubio said.

Rubio said he fell in love with the idea of becoming an astronaut relatively late in life. His experiences in the Army taught him to rely on his training and how to work as part of a team, and that has helped him immeasurably as an astronaut, he said.

Army Astronaut
Army Col. Frank Rubio was awarded the Army Aviation Badge with Astronaut Device at a Pentagon ceremony on Feb. 22, 2024. Only two other active-duty soldiers have received the device. (Sgt. Deonte Rowell/U.S. Army)

He also learned from the Army how to do difficult tasks despite knowing that they are frightening.

“The Army, for me at least, provided so many opportunities to have that experience,” Rubio told reporters. “Whether it was jumping out of a plane; the first time that you hover a helicopter can be a pretty scary experience. The first time you fly in combat – it’s almost innumerable the number of events where I had butterflies in my stomach, was a little nervous, but you go out and you do them anyways, and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be OK.’ Honestly, even something as unique as being in space, it was almost the exact same feeling: You’re a little bit nervous but you trust in your training, and you go out and do it. It went really well.”

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth noted at Thursday’s ceremony that the Astronaut Device is one of the service’s most rare qualifications. The other two active-duty soldiers who have received the device are Army Cols. Anne McClain and Andrew Morgan.

“Col. Rubio is a stellar example of someone who has made the absolute most of every opportunity,” Wormuth said. “What started as a way to pay for college turned into quite an adventure. From the time he entered West Point as a cadet, Frank has taken advantage of every opportunity the Army has put in front of him.”

Though the stereotype of an astronaut is often associated with pilots from the Air Force or Navy, a total of 19 soldiers have served as astronauts with NASA since 1978, said Wormuth, who added those soldiers “represent the very best and most talented officers and warrant officers from within the Army.”

Rubio’s promotion ceremony happened to be held on the same day that an unmanned spacecraft made by a Houston-based company touched down on the moon. The event marked the first U.S. moon landing since 1972.

The Army will continue to play an important role in space exploration as NASA plans missions to the moon and destinations beyond Mars, Wormuth said.

“Col. Rubio, you are a stellar example of the Army’s core values and what it means to lead a life of service,” Wormuth said. “You inspired audiences around the world as you orbited the Earth for 371 days, and now, back on Earth, you continue to inspire others as you share your experience with the public.”

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