In an exciting milestone for Saudi Arabia’s space program, the nation’s first astronauts in decades embarked on a chartered multimillion-dollar flight to the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday.
Led by a retired NASA astronaut now working for the company that organized the trip, the crew, which included a U.S. businessman who owns a sports car racing team, was launched into space by SpaceX.
The four-member crew is expected to reach the space station on Monday morning and will spend slightly over a week conducting experiments before returning home with a splashdown off the Florida coast.
Sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government, the historic mission includes Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher who becomes the first woman from the kingdom to venture into space, and Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot with the Royal Saudi Air Force.
This launch marks the first time astronauts from Saudi Arabia have traveled to space since a Saudi prince flew aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1985. Coincidentally, upon reaching the ISS, they will be welcomed by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates, highlighting the collaborative efforts within the region’s space exploration initiatives.
Speaking before the flight, Barnawi expressed her excitement, stating, “This is a dream come true for everyone. Just being able to understand that this is possible. If me and Ali can do it, then they can do it, too.”
Alongside Barnawi and al-Qarni, the visiting crew includes John Shoffner from Knoxville, Tennessee, a former driver and owner of a sports car racing team that competes in Europe. Accompanying them as a chaperone is Peggy Whitson, the station’s first female commander and the holder of the U.S. record for the most accumulated time in space, currently at 665 days and counting.
This privately organized mission to the ISS is the second by Houston-based Axiom Space. The company’s first venture involved three businessmen and a retired NASA astronaut last year.
Axiom has plans to add its own modules to the ISS in the coming years, eventually creating a separate outpost that can be leased independently. While the exact cost of Shoffner and Saudi Arabia’s 10-day mission has not been disclosed, Axiom had previously mentioned a ticket price of $55 million per person.
NASA, which traditionally shied away from space tourism, has now embraced it and plans to facilitate two private missions per year. Meanwhile, the Russian Space Agency has intermittently offered space tourism for several decades.
As part of their stay aboard the ISS, the visiting crew will have access to most of the station’s facilities, conducting experiments, capturing Earth’s photographs, and engaging in video calls with schoolchildren back in Saudi Arabia. They will even demonstrate how kites fly in space when attached to a fan, showcasing the wonders of microgravity.
The launch of Saudi Arabia’s first astronauts in decades is a significant step forward for the nation’s space ambitions. By joining the global community of spacefarers, Saudi Arabia aims to expand its presence in low-Earth orbit and contribute to scientific research and exploration endeavors.
As the kingdom makes strides in space exploration, the hope is that such missions will inspire future generations and promote collaboration within the region and beyond.