The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared into the sky from Kennedy Space Center on Florida's east coast on a mission organized by Axiom Space. The Saudi astronauts were accompanied by two other crew members: former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who undertook her fourth flight to the ISS, and American entrepreneur John Shoffner, who served as the pilot.
The launch of the Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) was the culmination of an effort that saw the rocket take off at 5:37 pm (2137 GMT), sending the four-member crew into space, where they were set to spend around 10 days on board the ISS. Following the successful launch, their arrival at the ISS was projected for around 1:30 pm the next day, Monday.
Barnawi, during a press conference prior to the launch, expressed her honor at being the first Saudi woman astronaut and was thrilled to share her experience with children while on the ISS. Al-Qarni, a career fighter pilot, shared his enthusiasm about fulfilling his passion for exploring the unknown and "flying among the stars."
The mission, marking the latest move by Saudi Arabia in its foray into space, also reflected the kingdom's efforts to revamp its ultraconservative image. Saudi Arabia had established the Saudi Space Commission in 2018 and launched a program to send astronauts into space the following year.
On board the ISS, the team was set to join seven other astronauts and carry out around 20 experiments, one of which involves studying the behavior of stem cells in zero gravity. They would be sharing the space with three Russians, three Americans, and Emirati astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi, who became the first Arab national to go on a spacewalk the previous month.
Axiom Space, the company behind the mission, had previously carried out its first private astronaut mission to the ISS in April 2022, as part of the Ax-1 mission. Axiom aims to construct its own space station, with the first module expected to launch in 2025.
In response to some astronauts on the ISS who expressed concern over having to take time out of their day to attend to space tourists, Whitson assured, "I'll be available to help the crew members a lot more as they need assistance."
The success of the Ax-2 mission and the ongoing advancements of Axiom Space align with NASA's plans to retire the ISS around 2030 and to instead send astronauts to private stations, thereby encouraging the development of programs by several companies. Meanwhile, international partners like Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency are committed to continue operations until 2030.
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