ISS welcomes its first Saudi astronauts, in private mission

Axiom Mission 2 mission specialist Rayyanah Barnawi, of Saudi Arabia (L), and commander and former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, of the United States, make a heart-shape with their hands towards family members, as they arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 21 May 2023. Two Saudi astronauts, including the first Saudi woman, will blast off from Florida on 21 May on a private mission to the International Space Station (ISS). (Photo by Gregg Newton / AFP)

A SpaceX capsule carrying two Saudi astronauts docked with the International Space Station on Monday, as part of a private mission chartered by Axiom Space.

Rayyanah Barnawi, a scientist who became the first Saudi woman to go into space, and Ali Al-Qarni, a trained fighter pilot, are the first two people from their country to fly to the orbital outpost.

“Greetings from outer space, I’m here not only representing myself but representing the hopes and dreams of everyone back home, everyone in the region,” said Barnawi.

“We really are excited to be here,” added mission commander Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who made the voyage three times in the past.

“It was a great launch, a great ride, we had a lot of fun on the way up and we’re really excited to get a lot of work done up here.”

The fourth crew member is American businessman John Shoffner.

About two hours after docking, the quartet entered the ISS, where they joined the seven astronauts — three Russians, three Americans, and an Emirati — already on board.

The SpaceX rocket blasted off from Florida on Sunday, and the trip to the ISS, which orbits around 250 miles (400 kilometers) above the Earth, lasted about 16 hours.

This mission, named Ax-2, is the second fully private mission to visit the space station, following a first in April 2022. The members of Ax-2 will stay for about 10 days and carry out some 20 experiments.

NASA is trying to seed a commercial space economy in the region of space known as “Low Earth Orbit,” allowing it to focus its own energies on missions deeper into the solar system and beyond.

The Axiom Mission 1 launched last April, with the seats for three private astronauts accompanying an Axiom-employed astronaut reported to cost $55 million each. The cost of seats for Ax-2 has not been disclosed.

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