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Learning to Fly

Season 1Episode 262Oct 21, 2022

Joining us directly from the International Space Station, NASA Astronaut Frank Rubio reflects on his recent launch into space and his first days on station. HWHAP Episode 262.

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 262 Learning to Fly

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 262 Learning to Fly

From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.

On Episode 262, NASA Astronaut Frank Rubio joined us from the International Space Station to talk about his recent launch into space and his first days on station. This episode was recorded on October 7, 2022.

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Dan Huot (Host): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 262, “Learning to Fly.” I’m Dan Huot and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, and astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. And for this episode, we’ve got a special treat: we talked to Dr. Frank Rubio while he was on board the International Space Station. Frank was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in 2017. Before that, he was a U.S. Army major, a helicopter pilot, a flight surgeon, now obviously a NASA astronaut, and he launched recently on a Soyuz and is currently on his very first mission on board the International Space Station. He calls Florida his original home and graduated from Miami Sunset High School in Miami, Florida, and then he went on to attend the U.S. Military Academy in New York, where he received a degree in international business and was a member of the West Point parachute team; spent eight years as an army aviator after college, logging more than 1,100 hours as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot. Frank then went on to medical school where he earned a doctorate of medicine from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in 2010, and is a certified family physician and flight surgeon. He flew on board the Soyuz MS-22 mission to the International Space Station and was the first NASA astronaut to ride on a Soyuz since Mark Vande Hei’s return in March of 2022. This was the first flight in Frank’s spaceflight career, and we got him just two weeks after he launched so he was able to take us behind the scenes of what it’s like to be an astronaut and wake up on the day knowing you’re going to climb on board a rocket and head into space, talked to us about what it’s like to be inside that rocket, those first moments flying in microgravity; even what it’s like to learn how to sleep when you’re floating around on board the space station. So with no further delay, let’s jump right in to our talk with NASA astronaut Dr. Frank Rubio. Enjoy.


Host: Hey station, this is Dan Huot with Houston We Have a Podcast. How do you hear me?

Frank Rubio: Hey Daniel, I hear you loud and clear. How do you hear me?

Host: Oh, I got you loud and clear now. Frank, thank you so much for checking in with us. You know, normally we snag you guys before you fly, but this is a real treat because if anything never gets old, it’s talking to people in space. So, I mean, just jumping right in: how have, how have the first two weeks gone? How are you settling in there?

Frank Rubio: You know, it’s been fantastic. There’s so many highlights. Probably the number one thing is coming up here and seeing some of my closest friends up here, two of my classmates. And, you know, it just, they’re not just familiar faces, but having friends greet you at the door when you’re coming up for such a momentous event, it’s, it’s been really special. And then the other highlight is just the views, right? You look out the Cupola window and seeing the Earth from this perspective is just spectacular; never gets old. I feel like a little kid every time I go in there and I look out the window. Probably not the most efficient way to get work out of me, but it’s, it sure is special to, to look out that window.

Host: Copy that: shut the Cupola windows when Frank’s behind his schedule. I mean, I wanted to, I wanted to kind of dig in because you, you just did something that’s still, very few humans throughout history have ever done. You, you climbed on top of a rocket and launched into space. So if, if we can start back just, and it’s fresh for you, you’ve only been there for about two weeks now, so if you can take us back to, to launch day: I mean, waking up, what is it like to wake up and know that, can you even sleep the night before? I mean, it’s got to be, it’s got to be like a kid before Christmas times a hundred.

Frank Rubio: You know, that’s exactly what I expected, to be honest. I figured I’d probably get one or two hours of broken sleep the night before. But I was pleasantly surprised, I actually slept really well. And I think part of that is just you, you get in a routine, your family’s there, and so, it was just, you know, I, I felt ready, and I felt like it was time. And so I was pleasantly surprised at how well I slept, especially in Baikonur: we go through quite a few traditions the morning of, and so that was pretty special, it kind of breaks up the day and it also makes you kind of look forward to the next thing instead of just focusing on, you know, the big rocket launch later that day. And before you know it, you know, you’re, you’re waving to people, you’re, you know, unfortunately we’re in quarantine so you don’t really get to kiss your loved one goodbye, but you, you get to kind of send a kiss to them through the, through the window. And then you’re in your suit, you’re on the bus and you’re getting dropped off right in front of the rocket. What was really surprising to me was from the time we got off the bus till the time we were strapping into the seats, seemed like just, you know, 30 seconds; it, it really probably was around ten minutes, but I was amazed at how quickly it went. And yeah, and then as soon as you get strapped in, the neat thing is that it feels just like the simulations that you’ve run, you know, hundreds of time because you’ve been in that simulator so long. It was kind of a comforting feeling of, like, OK, we’re, we’re, we’re home now. And then you sit there, and everything went really smoothly for us. So we had about 45 minutes of time left over and, you know, you have a playlist of music that each of you submit, and so we were able to go through all of our playlists and, and so that also helps you calm down and just relax a little bit. And you’re just kind of sitting there waiting for launch. And then, when you finally get to about one minute to go, I think for me especially, that was like, oh, OK, this is about to happen. You count down from ten, of course the engines start to fire around 20 seconds, and so, by the time you finally get to zero, you’re starting motion. And, again, I was, I was pleasantly surprised at how calm we all felt and were in that rocket. I, I thought my heart rate would be shooting through the roof, but it was amazingly smooth, very smooth ride, and, you know, all eight minutes you’re just kind of going through your checklist and going through each of the events that you know is going to happen, they happen right on time and, and the whole time, you’re just kind of smiling from ear to ear. But, again, for me, I was lucky, and I was surprisingly calm throughout the whole thing.

Host: And so, just, just physically inside that capsule, because I mean, it’s your, your, your windows are blocked by a shroud, it’s, it’s got to be — I mean, it’s not dark, you have lights on so you can see everything — but you’re, you are kind of very closed off from everything; what are you, what are you feeling, what are you seeing, what are you smelling — do you smell anything? — what are you hearing as, as the rocket ignites? Is it like, would you compare it to, you know, being on a plane taking off? Is there any sensation in your life you’ve ever felt like lifting off?

Frank Rubio: Yeah, you know, I’ve been lucky enough through work to see a couple of rocket launches prior to this. I’ve seen a Soyuz launch and I’ve seen a, a, a couple of Falcon 9 launches. And when you’re standing there, especially — again, we’re, we’re lucky enough to be within a few miles of the launch site — and you just feel the reverb, the reverberation going through your chest, right, that, that sonic boom, and you know, you, you, first you see the light, right, coming at you, so you see the rocket launching; soon after that, you hear it, and then you just feel it going through your chest. And so I was kind of expecting that being in the, in the rocket, but again, I was, I was so amazed and surprised that it’s surprisingly quiet, and of course, when you think about it, it makes sense: they’re, they’re diverting all of that energy away from the rocket. And so, it was actually surprisingly quiet and very smooth. Again, I was expecting to kind of be put against the back of my seat, but the, the gs pick up very slowly and, again, it’s a lot of weight, right? You’re, you’re several hundred pounds, several hundred tons of rocket fuel that are trying to lift off at the same time. So before I knew it we were two, two minutes into the air, and that’s really when I first started to feel the gs kind of building up. And it was really my face, you know, just kind of, I felt like, oh, OK, my skin’s hitting my ears. This probably means we’re experiencing some high gs. But yeah, it, it, you know, it, it is of course like nothing I’ve ever felt before, but it was a lot quieter and a lot smoother than I expected.

NASA astronaut Frank Rubio performs preflight checkouts

Host: And then, I mean, once, once you’re up there, what are, what are some of those, what do some of those firsts feel like? I mean, you’re an astronaut, clearly, you’ve been thinking about going to space, if not your whole life for definitely a couple of years; what is it, what was it like that, what was your first look out the window, your first time something floated away from you on microgravity and you had to go catch it?

Frank Rubio: Yeah, so, you know, despite essentially saying, hey, everything was kind of quiet and calm, the first time that I felt really excited was when the fairings finally fell, fell away. And the way it worked out for us, my side of the Soyuz and my window were facing towards the Sun, and Dmitri’s [Petelin] side was facing towards complete darkness. And so it took me probably five or ten seconds of looking around, because the first thing that went through my head was, oh no, my fairing fell and his didn’t, right, we’re still — so essentially, I started going through a malfunction scenario. And then it took me five seconds or so to realize, nope, it’s just that the capsule’s oriented in a way that I’m facing the light and he’s not. And then, so I, I realizing that I kind of looked out the window and that first view of the Earth and just, you know, you’re still fairly low, you’re only about 150 miles up, so you can start to see the curvature but it’s not really distinct just yet. But you, you see the ocean, you see the land and it just, it’s absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. What was really neat for me is after that first burn after [orbital insertion], you know, that took, took us up to about 200 to 220 miles, and then you really start to make out the curvature of the Earth and that was a pretty special view. Again, it’s, you just want to look out the window the whole time, but you, you realize you have things that you have to do, procedures that you have to get through to make sure that you get to station on time.

Host: And so, you guys, you guys did the fast track, it was only about three hours. Did you, do you stay in your seat the whole time? Do you get up and, you know, stretch your legs? What was the first time you kind of were able to get out and, you know, start flying?

Frank Rubio: Yeah, you stay strapped in in the Soyuz because it is a two-orbit rendezvous, it’s incredibly quick. We, we were here three and a half hours later. So it’s super-quick catch to the ISS. And so, it’s not until docking is complete that you unstrap. And, again, the Soyuz is fairly small and in that small volume, you know, you’re floating around, but you are kind of bumping into things, so it kind of keeps you in place. So it really wasn’t until hatch opening and we got onto station and the much bigger volume that I really appreciated how much more difficult it is to move around and control your motion. So, you know, most of us do OK, but, you know, some of us get, get space sick, as we call it, which is just a disequilibrium as your vestibular system tries to figure out which way is up when there’s no gravity. So I spent that first day, I did pretty well, but I, I still was a little disoriented not knowing which way was up. It was really throwing my mind for a loop every time, you know, especially if I would go up against a side wall and then my brain would quickly reference that as being the floor, and if you look at it for more than ten seconds you, you become convinced that that is the floor. And then you look up and all of a sudden what you thought was the side wall is actually the floor and there’s somebody floating on, you know, what you thought was another side wall but it’s actually a ceiling. So your brain is just spinning and going for lots of loops those first couple days as your eyes and what your brain is telling you don’t match at all. But again, you, you just can’t help but smile because you realize you’re up here and what a unique opportunity it is, and so, even though you’re not feeling great you really, I think most of us just feel utter joy from, from being up here.

Host: Yeah; easy to power through when it’s, when it’s, you know, you’re flying in space. I, I forgot to ask so we always talk about the first time you see the Earth; what about the first time you saw station? I mean, it’s something that millions of people see in pictures, I’ve probably seen a picture of it every day of my life for the last ten years. Did you get a view of it out the window? What was it like to, you know, to, was it gradually growing in size — that’s no moon, that’s a space station — as you get closer and closer?

Frank Rubio: Yeah, so you see it on the video monitor first and, you know, it’s just a little speck. And then as you get closer and finally once you dock, it actually, what went through my mind is like, hey, it looks just like the simulators that we use to practice for NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory) runs or spacewalk runs back on Earth. And everything was in just the perfectly right spot where it was supposed to be. But obviously it was all real. And so again, your brain just kind of, you know, has this little bit of disconnect of like, hey, this all looks incredibly familiar, but I’m in a completely new space, in space, right, and, and I’m 250 miles above the Earth. We docked and it, it took, you know, a couple of hours for all of the equalization that has to take place in order, in order to open the hatches, and so I spent a lot of that time just looking out the window and trying to catch as much of the space station as I could. And just, again, it’s, you feel like a, a kid looking at something, you know, at a toy that you’ve maybe seen on TV and it’s finally in your hands and, you just want to kind of look at it from all sorts of different angles.

Host: And I mean, what are you, you said going through the hatch, seeing smiling faces, that’s just an incredible moment; but what are those, what are those first hours, what’s that first day like? You said you kind of feel like a kid; is it like showing up at your, at your dorm room in college and, oh, here’s where you’re going to sleep, here’s where you’re going to eat, just trying to kind of find your way around this new space?

Frank Rubio: Yeah, you know, it is a little bit, but I guess the one huge advantage that we have is we’ve spent years training in, in Building 9 as we call it, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, that we use to train in. And so, it’s this weird sensation where it’s incredibly familiar, right? Like you feel like you’ve been here before…because we have, for lots of days, for many years of our lives. So you have a familiarity with it. I think the, the hardest part for your brain to realize is the 3D space and the fact that, you know, if you let go of something you’re going to float up to the roof, right? And so the floor, what we’re used to referencing as the floor — and it’s actually kind of getting away from that reference point — and it takes a few days to do that, but when you finally do, you, that’s when you start to feel comfortable up here. So there’s a, a very comforting familiarity and yet a very strange and, you know, kind of alienness to the, to the space, and it’s mostly because of the zero g and the 3D environment that you, you now live in.

Host: And then what’s it like kind of getting into the rhythm of just being on board? Like, what was, what was the first time they threw a science experiment at you? Do they, do they kind of make the, do they make the new guy do all the toilet maintenance for the first couple of weeks? I mean, just, what’s it like, just kind of getting into that rhythm?

Frank Rubio: Yeah, no, my, my crewmates have been incredibly kind. They’ve walked me through a lot of things, they haven’t made me do the toilet work, although, you know, you, you kind of want to do those things because you have to learn, right? There’s only a couple of weeks of handover, and then, before you know it, the people that know exactly what they’re doing are gone and you’re in charge of this incredibly complex national laboratory. And so, you, you kind of just want to absorb everything you can, and, and take every minute to learn as much as possible. But yeah, you know, it’s, for me one of the most difficult things, or two of the most difficult things, to learn is that when you let go of something, it starts floating away. You know, we have to keep a pretty good air flow up here to make sure that the gas exchanges happen as, as they need to, and so between zero gravity and that air flow things will just start to float away and it’s very, very easy to lose anything that’s not in your hands. Hey, everybody, say hi to Nicole (Mann) [Laughter]; Nicole just got here yesterday, so it’s been awesome to have them, them around. But anyways, so yeah, you, you know, you just have to get used to putting something down and knowing exactly where you put it, making sure that it’s either on Velcro or on tape, so that it doesn’t float away. The other thing is that you also float away, right? So if you go somewhere and you stop your momentum, but your feet don’t hook onto the right rail, you quickly start to lose that position and you’re floating away. So things that you’re just so used to using, doing become a lot more complex, right? So we’ve gone through all of these projects at home, we’ve practiced them and trained for them, but all of a sudden when you’re not standing and you’re not having gravity assist you as part of the, you know, working environment, it just becomes a lot more difficult. So things are taking a lot longer than I expected. Simple things like using the restroom, right, you have to think about actually holding yourself down, not just going about your business. Eating is another thing, right? You have to keep account of your food. It’s a lot more difficult to make a sandwich because it all just wants to float away. So it’s, it’s like learning to live all over again and every little thing, you know, you’re, you’re learning from scratch to, to a certain degree.

Host: And we always, we always hear differently, but what, what was it like that first night trying to go to sleep in microgravity? And I mean, is it, I’ve, I’ve heard it’s the best sleep you ever get, I’ve heard, you know, I, all I wanted to do was lay my head down on a pillow and I couldn’t, and it felt weird. What, what’s it like to, to kind of, and has that gotten easier over time?

Frank Rubio: It has, yeah. And, you know, it’s, it’s been, again, for me it’s been really an, an interesting experiment as a doctor just to see the adaptability of the human brain. You know, so for those that don’t know, our crew quarters are essentially a three-foot by three-foot by eight-to-nine-foot box, and, you know, we have two that are on the side walls, one that’s up in the ceiling and one that’s on the floor. And so when I went into mine, oh, well, and so in that box our sleeping bags are generally tacked against one of the side walls, and so you sleep in a essentially upright or vertical position, but depending on which crew quarter you’re using that can be either essentially what we would see as laying down or laying on the ceiling or laying on a side wall. So for me that first night was very difficult. I did feel like I was just kind of hanging there. I wanted very badly to put, put my head on a pillow and not being able to do so, and not having that pressure, was a little disconcerting. But I, I actually slept pretty well. The second night I, I remember waking up probably after six or seven hours of sleep, and I was completely convinced that I was laying on a bed. My, my brain had somehow, you know, convinced itself that I was laying sideways and that my head was laying against something even though I was in the exact same position. And so it was actually very comforting. The third night, I actually woke up again and that time I, I was convinced that I was upside down, right? And, and so, it was just interesting how your brain kind of readapts and adjusts. Ever since, probably after the first three or four nights, I’ve slept great. It is some of the best sleep I’ve ever had, because of all the machinery that we have running 24 hours a day up here there’s some really good white noise in the background. Our crew quarters are nice and dark when you turn off all the lights and so you, you sleep pretty well. But yeah, no, it’s been very comforting, but those first three nights were very interesting for me.

Host: It’s, it’s always wild just how quickly you guys can adapt up there to something just so, so alien. And so, we, we just saw Nicole fly by — you’re not the new guy anymore. What, what was it like to have Crew-5 come on board and, I mean, there’s 11 people in there right now — is it just, is it a mad house? Is it still big enough that you can find yourself alone with nobody around you? What’s it like with that many people?

NASA astronauts greet new station crew member Frank Rubio

Frank Rubio: No, it’s, it’s awesome, right? So it’s always awesome to have friends come through the hatch, even though it was my first experience. Again, it’s that familiarity with having friends coming through. And so that was pretty special. It is, it is neat that after just two weeks you do feel, you know, you definitely don’t feel like a veteran, but you do feel the difference of, hey, my body actually does know a little bit more what it’s doing. And I’ve, I’ve learned so much in these past two weeks. So you immediately, you know, start trying to help, right? They, they’re also going through something that you just went through two weeks ago so it’s very fresh for me. So the good thing is I had a lot of little tips that I remember those first couple days coming in very handy and I think that’s helped a lot. But yeah, there’s a lot of excitement, right? The, the guys that have been here, Crew-4, they’re ready to head home. And so, Crew-5 getting here I think is pretty special for them. Crew-5 is obviously, super-ecstatic to be here. And then, for me, this is going to be the crew that I’m going to spend the next five months with, and so that’s also incredibly exciting. It’s also a little bit, you know, sad to know that my other friends will soon be going home, but I’m also excited for them because they get to see their family soon. So yeah, all around it is absolutely crowded, definitely almost impossible to get any time alone other than inside your crew quarters. But other than that there’s, there’s very few negatives and a whole lot of positives to it.

Host: Awesome. Well, I think that’s going to do it for our time. Frank, I, I can’t thank you enough. It’s, it’s always fascinating to kind of jump into your guys’ head and see, see what it’s like to, to do something because again, like so few people get to do this still and it’s, it’s so awesome to hear it directly from you guys. So thank you so much. Best podcast ever. Can’t wait to see you over the next couple of months in space and can’t wait to see you back on the ground, but not too soon. You got, you got a lot of time up there. That’s, that’s good.

Frank Rubio: Yeah, that’s right. We got a lot of things that we need to get done up here. So, but hey, thanks a lot, Dan, I really appreciate you taking the time and thank you to the whole team for making this happen. Again, one of the things you said is it’s neat how quickly we adapt, but the only reason we’re able to do that is because the amazing training teams that spend years training us, getting, getting us ready for this moment. So, thank you to all of them and you guys have a great day.


Host: Thanks for sticking around. Hope you learned something today, and it’s always wild to talk to somebody who’s literally in outer space. So as always, check out for the latest news on NASA, human spaceflight, and everything else we’re doing. You can head over to for this and other podcasts from around the agency. As always, follow us on social media, we’ve got accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; use the hashtag #AskNASA on your favorite platform to submit your idea, and if you mention it’s for Houston We Have a Podcast we can try to make it into a future episode. This episode was recorded, from ground to outer space, on October 7, 2022. Thanks to Will Flato, Beth Weissinger, Mary Beth Boddeker, Pat Ryan, Heidi Lavelle, Belinda Pulido, Gary Jordan, and Jaden Jennings. And of course, thanks again to Frank Rubio for taking some time to talk to us on this show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on, and tell us what you think of the podcast. We’ll be back next week.