Two Saudi astronauts set to head to the International Space Station on May 9

Rayyanah Barnawi will become the first Arab woman in space

Saudi astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi. Photo: Axiom Space
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Two Saudi astronauts are set to head to the International Space Station for a 10-day mission next month.

They will take off from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on May 9, 6.43am UAE time.

The target launch date was announced by SpaceX and Axiom Space, the company in Houston that has helped arranged this trip for Saudi Arabia, during a remote media briefing on Thursday.

Rayyanah Barnawi, who is set to become the first Arab woman in space, and Ali Al Qarni will blast off as part of the AX-2 mission, alongside former Nasa astronaut Peggy Whitson as commander and pilot John Shoffner.

“We are all excited and proud as Saudi astronauts to announce the launch date of our journey into space in May,” said Ms Barnawi.

“We look forward to completing the objectives of the kingdom's space programme, which will contribute to achieving future explorations in various fields.”

They will join UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, who began his six-month mission on March 3, on board the ISS.

'Significant milestone' for Saudi

Mishaal Ashemimry, the microgravity research lead at the Saudi Space Commission, said that this would be the inaugural flight under the kingdom's sustainable human space flight programme that was announced in September.

Saudi Arabia sent the first Arab to space in 1985 when Prince Sultan bin Salman took off on a space shuttle for a seven-day trip, but no long-term space programme followed.

“This is a significant milestone for us in the kingdom as we launch our first female and our second male to space,” she said.

“We're excited about this mission because it's an inaugural mission of our human space flight programme.

“The human space flight programme is intended to be sustainable, meaning that we have constant flow of astronauts going to do research to help all humanity with research.”

Once a Falcon 9 rocket delivers the Dragon crew capsule to space, it takes about 37 hours for the spacecraft to dock with the station.

The Saudi astronauts will join their colleagues in the orbiting laboratory, including the UAE's Dr Al Neyadi.

Twenty science experiments have been assigned to the AX-2 crew, and the Saudi astronauts will focus on 11 that have been given to them by universities in the kingdom.

Training for the mission

As launch day approaches, the crew will be training in a mock-up of the Dragon capsule to familiarise themselves with the spacecraft.

They have trained in Houston for the past year, as well as other parts of the US, Europe and Japan.

Commander Whitson said that they are “well prepared” for the mission.

“We've done centrifuge training, zero-G flights, outdoor and confined environment training and team-building,” she said.

“John is going to be the pilot and he has decades of flight and amazing engineering experience.

“Ali, as a military pilot, brings a lot of operational and savvy discipline to the mission, and he's always volunteering for additional tasks. He's great to work with.

“Rayyanah will be the first Saudi woman to fly in space. So, obviously, she has an important role as a role model.

“But her scientific background in breast cancer and stem cell research is actually really important for a lot of the investigations that we're going to be conducting during the mission.”

Saudi Arabia looks to secure long-duration space missions

Ms Barnawi and Mr Al Qarni could be the first of a long list of astronauts that Saudi Arabia hopes to recruit.

Ms Ashemimry said that the kingdom is considering long-duration space missions next.

“We do have a desire and a goal to have long-stay missions that will capitalise on that microgravity environment,” she said.

“That's essentially what we would like to do with this human space flight programme.

“In doing so, we will train many astronauts, we will engage a lot of local entities to do a lot of research.

“We will also enhance our partnerships with international research entities on collaborative work for microgravity research that spans from human health all the way to physical science.”

More countries getting access to space

The trip to space for Saudi Arabia was made possible because of Axiom Space, the same company that helped the UAE secure its recent trip on the ISS.

Axiom Space has signed similar deals with Turkey, Italy and Hungary, ultimately helping more countries get access to space.

The space infrastructure company is also building a commercial space station in low-Earth orbit that would welcome tourists, astronauts and researchers.

Michael Suffredini, chief executive of Axiom Space, said that the company will be signing on two more countries.

“We think it's very important that we have the largest community of countries that explore beyond low-Earth orbit,” he said.

“And you start by co-operating together in low-Earth orbit. So, we think what we're doing is not only serving a market but more importantly helping us as a species learn to live off the planet which is going to be very important.”

Updated: April 06, 2023, 6:39 PM