The second ever private space mission is on its way to the ISS, the International Space Station.
Also on board are two Saudi astronauts, a woman and a man, the first citizens of their country to travel to the orbiting outpost.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket departed at 17:37 p.m. local time from Kennedy Space Center on Florida's east coast for a mission organized by Axiom Space. Saudis Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al-Qarni are accompanied by two other crew members: former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and American entrepreneur John Shoffner.
Rayyanah Barnawi, breast cancer researcher, is the first Saudi woman to travel to space and is joined by Saudi colleague Ali Al-Qarni, a fighter pilot.
Peggy Whitson is a former NASA astronaut on her fourth flight to the ISS. John Shoffner is a businessman from Tennessee and here he has the role of pilot.
The crew will spend about 10 days aboard the ISS.
"Being the first Saudi female astronaut to represent the country is a great pleasure and honor that I am very happy to take with me," Barnawi said at a recent news conference. The astronaut added that, in addition to the enthusiasm for the research he will conduct on board, he is looking forward to sharing his experience with children during their stay on the ISS: "To be able to see their faces when they see astronauts from their country for the first time is very exciting".
The mission is not Saudi Arabia's first in space. In 1985, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, an air force pilot, participated in a space trip organized by the United States.
But the space mission involving a Saudi woman represents a new move by the Gulf kingdom, where women gained the right to drive only a short time ago, to renew its ultraconservative image. The kingdom established the Saudi Space Commission in 2018 and last year launched a program to send astronauts into space.
The team composed of the four astronauts will have to carry out about twenty experiments during the stay on the ISS. One of them involves studying the behavior of stem cells in zero gravity. The crew will join seven other people already aboard the station: three Russians, three Americans and Emirati astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi, who last month was the first Arab citizen to take a spacewalk.
The mission to the ISS is the second in collaboration with NASA, the station's owner, by Axiom Space, a private space company that offers its trips at a cost of several million dollars. Axiom Space flew 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.
Some astronauts on the ISS at the time said they had to take time out of their day to take care of the "space tourists."
For Axiom Space, these missions are a first step towards an ambitious goal: the construction of its own space station, whose first module should be launched in 2025. The station would initially be attached to the ISS before separating and orbiting independently. NASA plans to retire the ISS around 2030 and send its astronauts to private stations.
Russia recently agreed to extend the use of the ISS until 2028, after threatening to withdraw earlier last year due to deteriorating ties between the Kremlin and the West over the invasion of Ukraine. The other international partners - Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency - have committed, like the United States, to
continue operations until 2030.
Axiom Ax-2 mission launch, Rayyanah Barnawi, former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, investor and pilot John Shoffner and Saudi astronaut Ali AlQarni