Frank Rubio
NASA astronaut Frank Rubio says training for a Soyuz flight to the ISS hasn't been affected by tensions between Russia and the West or delays in finalizing a seat barter agreement. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — A NASA astronaut flying to the International Space Station on a Soyuz spacecraft next month says his training hasn’t been affected by tensions with Russia or uncertainty about the status of his mission.

Frank Rubio is scheduled to launch to the ISS Sept. 21 on the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, joined by Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin. He will spend six months on the station as part of the Expedition 68 crew.

Rubio will be the first NASA astronaut to fly on a Soyuz since Mark Vande Hei returned from the station in March after spending nearly one year on the station. That return took place a month after Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, prompting a series of measures that severed most space cooperation between Russia and the West other than the ISS.

In a call with reporters Aug. 22, Rubio said a “good and strong relationship” remained in place between NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos on the ISS despite the invasion. “This crew swap really represents the ongoing effort of tremendous teams on both sides and amazing people that make this happen,” he said.

“I think it’s important that, when we’re at moments of possible tension elsewhere, human spaceflight and exploration, something that both agencies are incredibly passionate about, remains a form of diplomacy and partnership where we can find common ground and keep achieving great things together,” he added.

Rubio said he gets along well with his two Russian crewmates. “We all have similar priorities,” he said. “Our main focus is to make this mission happen as safely and as productively as possible.”

Rubio is the first to fly under an “integrated crews” or seat barter agreement between NASA and Roscosmos finalized July 15. The agreement allows NASA astronauts to fly on Soyuz vehicles in exchange for Russian cosmonauts flying on commercial crew vehicles, with no funds exchanged between the agencies. Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina will fly on the SpaceX Crew-5 mission to the ISS at the end of September.

Delays in finalizing the agreement between the American and Russian governments raised questions about whether it would be completed in time to allow Rubio to fly on Soyuz MS-22. However, he said he wasn’t nervous about that uncertainty while training for the mission.

“I had confidence in the team that it would happen,” he said. “At the same time, there was the confidence of knowing that if it happened, we would be ready, and if it didn’t, there were going to be other opportunities.”

Rubio is in Star City, the Russian cosmonaut training center outside Moscow, for final preparations for the launch. He will be there when NASA is scheduled to launch the Artemis 1 mission Aug. 29, but said he didn’t know if training would allow him to watch the launch live.

“Next week is finals week, so we’ll be pretty deep into our preparation for that,” he said. “If I don’t get to watch it live, I will for sure watch a recording of it as soon as possible.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...