A private mission organized by the American company Axiom Space took off on Sunday for the International Space Station (ISS), with on board the first two Saudi astronauts to go there, a man and a woman.
Rayana Barnawi and Ali Al-Qarni are accompanied by two other crew members. Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who has already been to the ISS three times, commands the mission. American entrepreneur John Shoffner acts as pilot.
This mission, named Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2), took off shortly before 5:40 p.m. (9:40 p.m. GMT) aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The four astronauts are using a SpaceX Dragon capsule to reach the International Space Station, where they are due to arrive around 1:24 p.m. GMT on Monday and where they will spend ten days.
“Thank you for trusting the Falcon 9 team. I hope you enjoyed the journey to space. Have a good trip aboard Dragon. Welcome home zero G, Peggy, SpaceX chief engineer Bill Gerstenmaier launched to the three astronauts, according to live broadcast radio communications.
One of the rocket’s boosters returned to Earth and landed on a designated area, which is “a first for manned spaceflight,” SpaceX tweeted.
“Being the first Saudi woman astronaut, and representing the region, is a great pleasure and an honor,” said Rayana Barnawi, a scientist by training, during a press conference a few days before the departure.
She said she’s excited about talking to children from the ISS: “Being able to see their faces when they see astronauts from their own region for the first time is very exciting,” she said.
In everyday life, Ali Al-Qarni is a fighter pilot. “I’ve always had a passion for exploring the unknown, and admiring the sky and the stars,” he explained. “So this is a wonderful opportunity for me to pursue that passion, and this time to fly among the stars. »
The rich oil state has already sent one of its nationals into space in the past. In 1985, Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman took part in an American mission.
But this new space journey is part of the strategy of the ultra-conservative kingdom to improve the image of the country, where women were still not allowed to drive just a few years ago.
Saudi Arabia created the Saudi Space Authority in 2018, and last year launched a program to send astronauts into space.
The four crew members must carry out around twenty experiments during their stay. One of them consists in studying the behavior of stem cells in weightlessness.
They will join the seven passengers already on board the ISS: three Russians, three Americans, and Emirati astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi, who last month became the first national of an Arab country to go out in space.
This mission, named Ax-2, is the second in a partnership between the American space agency (which opens the doors to the ISS) and Axiom Space, which offers these extraordinary stays for amounts that are counted in millions of dollars. .
The company is responsible for the training of apprentice astronauts, chartering the means of transport, and the smooth running of their stay.
A first mission, Ax-1, took three businessmen and a former astronaut, Michael Lopez-Alegria, to spend two weeks on the International Space Station in April 2022.
Some astronauts then on board the ISS had said they had to take their time – precious in weightlessness – to take care of these space tourists.
“My time is less constrained than that of Mike Lopez-Alegria on the first mission,” assured Commander Peggy Whitson. “So I will be available to help the crew further”.
Private space stations
For Axiom Space, these missions are a first step towards an ambitious goal: the construction of its own space station, the first module of which is to be launched at the end of 2025.
The structure will first be attached to the ISS, before separating from it to take off independently.
NASA plans to retire the ISS around 2030, and instead send its astronauts to private stations – which will also host their own customers. The American space agency thus encourages the programs of several companies.
Russia recently pledged to extend the duration of the ISS until 2028, after threatening an earlier withdrawal after the start of the war in Ukraine, raising the question of its survival.
The other international partners – Japan, Canada, European Space Agency – have committed, like the United States, to continuing operations until 2030.