It took more than two years for Kate Rubins, a graduate of Napa’s Vintage High School, to train for the NASA astronaut corps, then 2 ½ years more to ready herself for a four-month mission aboard the International Space Station.
But amid the flight training and water-tank drills and wintertime survival exercises, one piece of advice has stood out to the Napa native preparing to reach for the stars.
“My best advice is keep your eyes open, have fun and enjoy the time you have in space, because the time goes by very fast,” said Anatoly Ivanishin, the Russian cosmonaut who will be one of Rubins’ two crewmates aboard the Soyuz spacecraft scheduled to boost them into earth orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on the afternoon of June 21.
Nearing the fulfillment of her childhood dream of spaceflight, the 37-year-old Rubins, a flight engineer on the upcoming mission, found those words easy to follow.
“I think there’s not too many things in the day in the life of a space station that aren’t absolutely amazing, because of the fact that you are in freefall the entire time and the laws of physics have changed. I’m looking forward to seeing all of that,” she said Wednesday during a NASA news conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston with mission commander Ivanishin – the only one with previous spaceflight experience – and flight engineer Takuya Onishi of Japan.
Rubins, Ivanishin and Onishi are scheduled to spend 131 days aboard the jointly U.S.- and Russian-operated outpost some 268 miles above the Earth, completing more than 15 orbits a day before returning to Baikonur Oct. 30. From Houston, the astronauts will travel to Star City outside Moscow for final launch and landing training, then head to Baikonur two weeks before launch.
Growing up in Napa, Rubins had her interest in space fired by childhood stargazing events and a weeklong stay at the NASA Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama while in middle school. After graduating from Vintage High School in 1996, she studied molecular biology at UC San Diego and became a virologist, studying the genetics of viruses responsible for Ebola, smallpox and AIDS for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an infectious disease laboratory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Despite her longstanding research career, Rubins never lost her passion for space travel, and joined more than 3,500 people who applied to join the ranks of NASA astronauts in 2008. She was selected with 13 others after a yearlong process, and began training for her space station mission several months before NASA announced the flight in February 2015.
In addition to flight training, preparations for the three-person crew have included underwater spacewalks to simulate the microgravity of space, as well as operating the space station’s cargo-grabbing robotic arm and landing on water and land.
“The training for the Soyuz vehicle was quite tough, because I needed to study like a college student,” recalled Onishi. “I stayed up late almost every day, up to 2 a.m., studying Soyuz systems and going to classes in the daytime and coming back to study again.”
Rubins, Ivanishin and Onishi will supervise more than 250 experiments aboard the station to study the effects of weightlessness, including projects seeking ways to slow the weakening of bones, muscles and immune systems in the weightlessness of space. Those tests are intended to make possible safer human flight to Mars, a journey that would require several months each way across 92.9 million miles – nearly the same distance separating the Earth from the Sun.
Studies of human biology, on earth as well as in space, were a special interest to the former geneticist.
“There’s a lot of life science experiments that I’m excited about,” Rubins told reporters in Houston. “There’s going to be some DNA sequencing experiments, a lot of experiments to look at the behavior of cells in space as well as bone loss and muscle loss that we can actually correlate with some diseases on earth. So I’m looking forward to a pretty hefty research component.”
Mindful of the childhood opportunities that helped guide her into NASA, Rubins hopes to arrange a TV or Internet program from orbit for students at Napa schools, although details are yet to be worked out. But whatever form that outreach takes, she hopes her mission can offer proof that girls and young women – or any young people with a talent for the sciences – can follow their passion.
“It would have been an amazing opportunity as a young person to be able to call the International Space Station and ask questions,” she said. “The opportunity is great and it’s something people can get really excited about.”