Saudi astronauts complete training for historic trip to space in May

Rayyanah Barnawi is set to become the first Arab female in space

Two Saudi astronauts have moved a step closer to their historic mission to the International Space Station after completing their training programme.

Ali Al Qarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, who is set to become the first Arab woman in space, are set to travel to the orbiting laboratory on May 12 as part of the AX-2 mission.

The 10-day trip has been organised by Axiom Space, a private space company based in Houston, Texas.

The company helped the UAE secure its six-month mission on the station that is being carried out by Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi. The company will also send the first Turkish astronaut to space later this year.

“The astronauts have completed a training programme specialised in conducting scientific experiments during their journey to the International Space Station,” the Saudi Space Commission tweeted.

“The experiments aim to enhance knowledge and contribute to the advancement of science to serve humanity.”

Mr Al Qarni and Ms Barnawi will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and will serve as mission specialists on the flight.

They will travel alongside former Nasa astronaut Peggy Whitson, who will serve as commander on the AX-2 mission, as well as John Shoffner, who will be the pilot.

The space mission for Saudi Arabia comes nearly 40 years after the kingdom sent the first Arab to space. Prince Sultan bin Salman spent a week on Nasa's Space Shuttle in 1985.

The kingdom's space agency said in September that they had secured the latest trip. They also made an announcement to launch a long-term astronaut programme, which currently has four members.

Since then, the two Saudi astronauts and their backup astronauts have been training in the US. They are learning about the space station and its systems, to prepare food aboard the station, are spending time in a habitat that mimics space station and space travel, and are also preparing to conduct science experiments on the ISS.

The AX-2 mission has been assigned more than 20 experiments and the Saudi astronauts will also be doing 11 that have been given to them by universities in the kingdom.

These include ones on cloud seeding and studying immune cells.

Landmark moment for Arab world

The Saudi astronauts will join Dr Al Neyadi on board the space station, in a landmark achievement for the Arab world.

Salem Al Marri, director general of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, told The National in an earlier interview that the Arab assembly will be an exciting moment.

“The space station has received one Arab astronaut in about 22 years of operation,” Mr Al Marri said.

“So if now, in one year, we’re able to have three Arab astronauts there at the same time, I think that’s pretty cool.

“I think it really showcases that this region is starting to look at space as something important and a driver of whether it is the economy, supporting education or doing outreach.”

The AX-2 astronauts will go into a mandatory quarantine two weeks before the launch.

Updated: March 31, 2023, 11:45 AM