A private mission organized by Axiom Space lifted off Sunday for the International Space Station (ISS) with Saudi Arabia’s first two astronauts, a man and a woman. Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al Qarni lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who has visited the ISS three times, is leading the mission along with US entrepreneur John Shoffner as pilot.
The crew received words of thanks from SpaceX engine engineer Bill Gerstenmaier minutes after liftoff. They are expected to spend about 10 days aboard the International Space Station and will arrive at the ISS on Monday around 13:30 GMT.
Barnawi, a scientist who has done stem cell research, was excited to become the first Saudi female astronaut and represent the region. She expressed her excitement about talking to children from the ISS and seeing their faces as they saw astronauts from their own region for the first time. For his part, Al Qarni, a fighter pilot, commented that he has always had a passion for exploring the unknown and admiring the sky and stars. He sees this opportunity as a wonderful way to follow his passion and fly among the stars.
This mission is part of Saudi Arabia’s strategy to improve the country’s ultra-conservative image. In 1985, Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salmane participated in a US mission. However, this new space trip is an important milestone in its plan to develop its space program. During their stay on the ISS, the crew will conduct some 20 experiments, including the study of stem cell behavior in zero gravity.
The Ax-2 mission is the second partnership between NASA and Axiom Space, which offers extraordinary space travel to wealthy customers. This is an initial stage for Axiom Space in its goal to build its own space station, which will launch in late 2025 and separate from the ISS to become an independent entity. NASA has plans to retire the ISS around 2030 and send its astronauts to private space stations, which encourages the participation of several companies in the development of the space sector.
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