When Frank Rubio was a student at Miami Sunset Senior High, he loved physics. And math. And the natural sciences.
But becoming an astronaut?
“I wasn’t a kid who dreamed of becoming one,” Dr. Francisco “Frank” Rubio, 41, who graduated from Sunset in 1994, said in an interview Thursday. “It wasn’t in my realm of possibility.”
Rubio was picked last week to be one of 12 astronaut candidates from NASA’s largest pool of 18,000 applicants, surpassing the previous record of 8,000 in 1978. He started considering an astronaut career during medical school, when a guest speaker mentioned the types of people NASA recruits — engineers, pilots and medical professionals.
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“I kept it in the back of my mind for about 10 years,” said the highly ranked combat veteran, who is a family physician. “Then I decided to go ahead and try.”
The newly minted astronaut candidate graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1998, served as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot and in 2010 earned his medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a government-run university in Bethesda, Maryland. When he was selected by NASA, he was an active duty member of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Rubio’s family is from El Salvador, but he was born in Los Angeles and spent the first 15 years of his life there. Rubio moved to West Kendall with his mother and father — Myrna Argueta and a former Univision voice talent Martin Mayen — when he was 16, according to school records. His mother attended her son’s NASA introduction in Houston on Wednesday. It was in Miami that Rubio met his future wife, Miami native Deborah Rubio.
It was in Miami, too, where he was encouraged to embrace his cultural heritage.
“In Florida you have politicians, businessmen, professionals who are Hispanic,” he said. “It wasn’t looked down upon as much, and it was a thing that was very proud in Miami. I hadn’t been around that growing up.”
Rubio joins the ranks of several astronauts with Miami ties, including Dominic Gorie, a 1975 graduate of Miami Palmetto Senior High and a 1994 recruit to NASA, and Coconut Grove native Winston Scott, who was recruited to NASA in 1992.
“He is in for a life-changing experience,” Scott said Friday. “He’s going to thoroughly enjoy it. I’m sure he is going to do his family and our city very proud. In the course of working hard to be a good astronaut, I would tell him to just relax. Enjoy it while it lasts, and good luck to him.”
Rubio’s Miami-Dade schooling was also crucial to his successful trajectory, he said. Rubio started 10th grade at Sunset High in 1991, where he studied under teachers in the science department who encouraged him to follow his interest in the sciences. While at the school, he took challenging courses like AP Chemistry, AP Biology and AP Physics, graduating with an impressive 4.174 GPA.
“We are extremely proud of Dr. Rubio and his accomplishments,’ said Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, a school spokeswoman.
After Miami Sunset, he went to West Point, where his focus on leadership and discipline “helped start the ball rolling.” He was a popular student, who was described as a “good dude” in his yearbook profile.
“A friend of Frank is a friend for life,” the entry read. “He’s like a brother and we look forward to the many good times yet to come.”
Rubio was on the parachute and football teams, and according to the profile, “had a knack for doing things at the very last second.”
After graduating with a degree in international relations, Rubio served as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot and flew more than 1,100 hours, including on deployments to Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
A married father of two, Rubio decided to attend medical school because of a childhood dream to become a doctor: “It’s what I always said [I wanted to do]. I grew to love it.”
Col. Lisa Moores, dean of students at the medical school, said he was always willing to help his classmates and often balanced classwork with athletics, community service, church and his family life.
“He just stood out in his class as someone who had prior experience,” Moores said. “We had many conversations about [his future] as he started to figure out what he was going to do.”
Another one of his advisers, the school’s dean of admissions, Col. Aaron Saguil, described Rubio as a person who has “extreme humility and a generosity of spirit as well.”
When Rubio applied to the space program, he said he had low expectations. The process included interviews in Texas with groups of other applicants.
“You come down for your interviews, and you get to know what you’re up against,” he said. “There are some amazing people, and you come to appreciate them. You form friends and brotherhood, because you are in the same process. You start cheering for the other people.”
Before Rubio reports for duty in August, he plans on spending time with his family — his wife, Deborah, and their four children aged 7, 8, 12 and 13 — in Colorado before they move to Texas. He will spend his first two years in basic training at Johnson Space Center in Houston before working three to eight years until he is assigned to a mission.
The new astronaut candidates could be assigned to an array of missions, including performing research on the International Space Station or being assigned to NASA’s new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket.
When he is assigned a mission, Rubio will spend two years of mission-specific intensive training, which includes learning Russian (one of the two official languages of the International Space Station) and performing simulated space walks.
Until then, he said he’s just thrilled to have been picked for the class.
“To be selected from among that group, humbling is the best word for it,” he said. “Any one of those people could be chosen. You definitely don’t walk away, saying ‘Oh, I got this.’ ”
Samantha Gross /@samanthajgross
Florida’s Other Astronauts
Eleven other NASA astronauts have hailed from Florida:
▪ William Lenoir, Miami — selected in 1967
▪ Richard Covey, Fort Walton Beach — selected in 1978
▪ Norman Thagard, from Jacksonville — selected in 1978
▪ Richard Richards, Key West — selected in 1980
▪ N. Jan Davis, Cocoa Beach — selected in 1987
▪ Fernando Caldeiro, Merritt Island — selected in 1991
▪ Wendy Lawrence, Jacksonville — selected in 1992
▪ Winston Scott, Coconut Grove — selected in 1992
▪ Dominic Gorie, Pinecrest — selected in 1994
▪ Thomas Mattingly II, Hialeah — selected in 1996
▪ U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, from Melbourne — orbited Earth aboard space shuttle Columbia in 1986
▪ Eric Boe, Miami — selected in 2000