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Artificial menisci and 371 days of swallowing toothpaste: Frank Rubio's adventures in space

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He spent a record-breaking 371 days in space and, with his dedication and medical knowledge, contributed to scientific knowledge, apparently inherited from the Bicentennial Man himself, which in a few decades could provide humans with artificial organs operating under conditions of Weightlessness was created. Francisco “Frank” Rubio (Los Angeles, age 48) is a doctor and American soldier of Salvadoran descent with more than 1,100 flight hours as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot and an accomplished skydiver with more than 650 free-fall jumps.

In 2022, Rubio was deployed for a six-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS), but remained stranded due to a glitch in the cooling system of the Russian Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft, which had to be used to return to Earth. He ended up being up there for more than a year, longer than any other NASA astronaut. As a doctor, he knew the toll this feat took on his body – in space, bone density is lost quickly due to the absence of gravity, which can also affect the immune and cardiovascular systems. Military training, he says, helped him overcome the psychological challenge of an extended stay in space. Before joining NASA, he served on missions in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was selected by the US space agency in 2017 and underwent two years of intensive training before his first special attack.

On the ISS, the astronaut decided to focus on what he loves most: medicine. He worked on hundreds of experiments. One of his favorite visits was to the BioFabrication Facility (BFF), a biological 3D printer, where he participated in research evaluating the mechanical properties of a meniscus printed with biological cells and inks. “We learned how cells behave in weightlessness and how they divide. “It's a little different because the shape of the cells is a little easier to maintain,” he says in Spanish from NASA in a brief interview via video call with América Futura.

“While I was there we were able to make a piece of the meniscus and that is incredible. And that's because microgravity is leaving us. This wouldn't be possible on Earth because gravity is too strong. And now we have to figure out how to restore this meniscus and maintain the structure of these tissues on Earth,” he explains. If this type of research continues to advance, Rubio says complete organs such as a heart or liver could be made in 10 or 20 years.

The experiment, on which he worked with NASA colleagues Warren Hoburg and Stephen Bowen and UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, could have a huge impact on the quality of life for thousands of people if implemented. To give an example: The incidence of acute meniscus tears is more than 50 cases per 100,000 people per year worldwide.

Bioproduction in space can be more productive due to the absence of gravity. Medical applications that could be developed under these conditions include mass production of stem cells, creating advanced disease models, or expanding 3D bioprinting capabilities. In addition, this branch of biotechnology can contribute to the development of new sustainable materials for fashion, sports or construction.

Frank Rubio in the Destiny laboratory module of the International Space Station, November 3, 2022.Frank Rubio in the International Space Station's Destiny laboratory module, November 3, 2022. NASA

During one of his three spacewalks, Rubio also helped install a small satellite deployment device. In addition, he took part in growing hydroponic vegetables on the ISS and was even wrongly accused by his colleagues of eating a few tomatoes that had been put in a bag but ended up floating in the canals of the space complex for months. He was only exonerated when other astronauts found them months later, when he was already back on Earth. Learning to grow in water or air will largely depend on the space race in the future.

The daily challenges of life in space

Rubio had prepared to spend six months in space – which usually takes a long time on a NASA mission due to the strenuous responsibilities for those doing it – but he ended up staying for more than a year, making him a US astronaut authority in space. spend more time on the space station. He surpassed Mark Vande Hei, who had spent 355 consecutive days on the ISS.

— Did you miss Earth more when you were stranded on the ISS, or do you miss being there even more now?

“When I was there I missed my family and the house every day, but now that I'm here, four months after returning, I think I want to be back there at least once a week for at least a few times .” Hours to enjoy the view, to enjoy floating and because being part of a complete space mission is something very special and I miss it a little, he admits with a laugh.

Although he doesn't miss it all the time. Rubio asserts that daily operations in space are less glamorous than we imagine on Earth. The astronaut spent an entire year isolated from the world, floating without eating fresh food, without hugs from family or without walks. He spent the day working for up to nine hours on very demanding investigations where there is no margin for error, as well as maintenance and training tasks.

They were intense and timed days, he says, during which, among other things, the astronauts were exposed to continuous sunlight and lost muscle mass despite exercising for two hours a day. “It takes a few months to get used to this rhythm,” he says. Additionally, Rubio says he missed seeing the running water. The astronauts wash themselves with a wet towel and brush their teeth with their mouths almost closed to prevent the liquid from dissipating throughout the station and contaminating other rooms where research is being carried out. Once used, toothpaste can be spit out onto a cloth, but he chose to swallow it. “I swallowed it twice a day for a whole year,” he admits with a laugh. “It’s part of the operation.”

The space race has led several generations to idealize the work of astronauts, men and women who risk their lives for science. And while the views from space are spectacular, the emotional, physical and professional toll is hard and challenging. “I believe that each of the 370 days I spent in space was special and that on each day there was a spectacular image that added to the beauty of the overall experience of being there,” he says.

Frank Rubio during a spacewalk in his Extravehicular Mobility Unit on November 15, 2022.Frank Rubio during a spacewalk in his Extravehicular Mobility Unit on November 15, 2022. NASA

For him, the biggest challenges in space are biological in nature, namely adapting to life without gravity. And although some tycoons seem to have already ushered in the era of space tourism, Rubio believes people are not yet ready for long space stays lasting more than a year or two. NASA estimates that with current technology, a round-trip flight to Mars and back could take three years and to Pluto up to 40 years. However, the astronaut makes it clear: “What seems impossible today will one day be normal.”

“I believe that mentally and physically there are people who can push themselves a little harder than normal. And these kinds of people are needed now to advance the space race,” he says. It is a task that he assures requires “a lot of strength” and a good team behind it. “It is very important to have a strong family, a strong community that supports you to be successful,” he emphasizes.

Rubio feels privileged to be part of a progressive mission “advancing science and technology and doing things to improve life for all of humanity.” His love for this job makes him want to continue for a few more years. “And God willing, we may return to space for much more.” 371 days are not enough for the NASA astronaut who has been on the International Space Station for the longest consecutive time.

Latinos in Space

There are 15 astronauts of Hispanic origin who have traveled to space with NASA or its allies. These are some of his milestones:

  • Arnaldo Tamayo Mendezfrom Cuba, was the first person of Hispanic origin to travel into space in 1980.
  • Rodolfo Neri Velafrom Mexico, was the first Hispanic to fly on the US space shuttle in 1985. He also introduced tortillas to the astronauts' diet.
  • Franklin Chang Diazfrom Costa Rica, was the first Hispanic-American in space in 1986. He holds the record of having traveled into space seven times.
  • Ellen Ochoaof Mexican origin, was the first Hispanic female astronaut in 1993. She was also the first person of Hispanic descent to lead NASA's Johnson Space Center.
  • Jose Hernandezwhose parents were immigrants from Mexico, became the first astronaut to use Twitter in Spanish from space in 2009.