FORT CARSON, Colo. — How many lifetimes does it take to become a soldier, pilot, doctor — and an astronaut? For Army Maj. (Dr.) Francisco Rubio, the battalion surgeon assigned to 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, it only takes one.
Rubio recently took his place as one of only 12 Americans selected to begin NASA astronaut candidate training in August 2017.
“It’s a dream come true,” Rubio said.
Rubio’s dream began after getting a briefing on the NASA space program during medical school more than a decade earlier. Then, in 2015, he saw his chance.
“NASA posted a Facebook release that they were going to be taking applications,” he said.
And with that, his journey to becoming an astronaut began.
Thousands of applicants
Rubio says he was a little daunted by the sheer number of applicants he was up against. This selection cycle saw more than 18,000 applications from all over the country, an unprecedented amount. Historically, the typical number of applicants is around 8,000.
“If you’re picking 10 out of 8,000 or 18,000, the odds are pretty slim anyway,” Rubio said.
During the selection process, Rubio reminded himself to temper his expectations.
“Honestly, you don’t expect it,” he said. “Even at the very end … mostly because you look at the people around you and you’re kind of amazed by them, too. You hope and hope, but you don’t really expect it.”
As to what ultimately set Rubio apart from more than 18,000 other applicants, your guess is as good as his.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said.
One thing is for certain. Rubio is immensely qualified for the job.
Rubio graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1998. He became an Army UH-60 Black Hawk pilot and flew more than 1,100 hours over the course of eight years. Of these flight hours, more than 600 were combat or imminent danger flight hours during deployments to Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Rubio attended and graduated from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2006, and he has served in the Army as a surgeon and physician since.
Rubio said he looks forward to astronaut candidate training, which starts at the end of this summer in August.
The program is expected to last two years. Rubio will take part in academically rigorous training focusing on spacewalks, robotics, international space stations, rocket systems, flying jet aircraft and learning to speak Russian.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.
Rubio, who will become just the third member of the Army Astronaut Corps, acknowledges that the road to space is still a long one for him. After he becomes an astronaut, it will take another five-to-eight years before he has the chance to go into space. But he’s keeping his spirits high.
“It’s going to be a really cool experience,” he said. “The most inspiring thing about it is that it’s almost universally supported in our country … you know you’re inspiring other people.”
Representing the nation
Rubio said he’s proud and humbled to represent the nation as an astronaut. Looking back at what he’s accomplished over the last 19 years in the Army, Rubio attributes his success to good fortune, good timing and taking advantage of opportunities.
“I’ve been incredibly blessed,” he said. “They [were] amazing opportunities … If it weren’t for the Army, I wouldn’t have had any of those opportunities. We’re in an organization that lets you succeed.”
He advices soldiers seeking to advance themselves to seize the initiative.
“There’re a lot of people that have dreams and hopes,” he said, “and they’ll talk about them, but sometimes they just don’t go through with finishing the application process. You never know unless you apply.”
His second piece of advice is to prepare to learn from mistakes.
“As much as it sounds like I’ve had some great success,” he said, “I’ve also had some failures, and I’ve fallen on my face. Sometimes, that’s the hardest part and the part where you learn the most.”
Embracing success and failure equally as just another part of the learning process, Rubio said, has enabled him to persevere and achieve the accomplishments of several lifetimes.
Now, Rubio is on track to take his place as one of only 350 Americans who’ve earned the title of an astronaut.