A private mission to the International Space Station (ISS), organized by Axiom Space, is set to lift off from Florida on Sunday. The mission will make history as it carries the first two Saudi astronauts to the ISS. Rayyanah Barnawi, a breast cancer researcher, will be the first Saudi woman to travel to space, while Ali Al-Qarni, a fighter pilot, will also join the mission. The team will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut, and John Shoffner, a businessman from Tennessee, will also be part of the crew.
The team will spend around 10 days on board the ISS, where they are expected to carry out about 20 experiments. They will join seven other astronauts already on board the ISS: three Russians, three Americans, and Emirati astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi. The mission to the ISS is the second in partnership with NASA by Axiom Space, a private space company that offers rare voyages for sums that run into the millions of dollars.
Axiom Space’s missions to the ISS are part of an ambitious goal to construct its own space station, with the first module expected to launch in 2025. NASA plans to retire the ISS around 2030 and instead send astronauts to private stations that will also host their own clients. This move has encouraged the development of programs by several companies.
The mission is not Saudi Arabia’s first foray into space. In 1985, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, an air force pilot, took part in a US-organized space voyage. The space mission involving a Saudi woman marks the latest move by the oil-rich Gulf kingdom to revamp its ultraconservative image. The kingdom established the Saudi Space Commission in 2018 and launched a program last year to send astronauts into space.
The four-member team is set to carry out experiments on the behavior of stem cells in zero gravity, among other things. Axiom Space carried out its first private astronaut mission to the ISS in April 2022, sending three businessmen and former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria to spend 17 days in orbit as part of Ax-1.
For Axiom Space, these missions are a first step toward an ambitious goal: the construction of its own space station, with the first module expected to launch in 2025. The station would at first be attached to the ISS before separating and orbiting independently.