Saudi and UAE astronauts working together in space 'will inspire the Arab world'

Two Saudi astronauts are set to join UAE's Sultan Al Neyadi on board the space station next week

The Ax-2 crew members on the launch tower at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Photo: Axiom Space
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Saudi astronauts gearing up to join the UAE's Sultan Al Neyadi on the International Space Station next week hope to inspire people across the Arab world.

Ali Al Qarni, 31, and Rayyanah Barnawi, 33, the first Saudi female astronaut, are preparing to blast off to the orbiting laboratory on May 22 at 1.37am GST (May 21, 5.37pm ET) from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

During their eight-day trip, they will meet Dr Al Neyadi, who arrived at the ISS on March 3 for a six-month mission.

It will be the first time astronauts from two Arab countries have visited the floating laboratory.

“I think it is a great opportunity that the three of us can be aboard the International Space Station,” said Mr Al Qarni, a former air force captain.

“It holds a big message that will inspire people and shows the Arab world [that] we are holding hands and working together for the betterment of humanity.”

Mr Al Qarni and Ms Barnawi will take off alongside American astronauts Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner on a Falcon 9 rocket.

The crew members spoke at a remote media briefing hosted by Axiom Space, the Houston company that helped arrange the trip for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on Tuesday.

Taking grandma's earrings to space

For Saudi Arabia, the trip shows the progress the kingdom is making in its Vision 2030 initiative.

Saudi Arabia sending its first woman to space less than five years after the kingdom lifted its ban on women driving in a notable display of societal growth.

Ms Barnawi, a research laboratory specialist with nine years of experience in cancer stem cell research, said she was honoured to be chosen for the milestone trip.

“I am very honoured and happy to be representing all the dreams and hopes of all the people in Saudi Arabia, and all the women back home,” she said.

She said that her family has been supportive of her endeavours and that her grandmother gave her earrings to carry to space with her.

“When I first told my grandmother that I was going to space, she gave me her 16-year-old earrings,” she said.

“This is what I'm taking with me to space, along with the Saudi flag, some photos of my family and also gifts for the members of Axiom who have helped us throughout this journey.”

Mr Al Qarni said that he explained to his wife and young daughter the importance of the trip and that they are supporting him.

He said he will be taking Saudi coffee and dates with him to space.

The two astronauts are the first Saudi citizens to go to space since the kingdom sent Prince Sultan bin Salman on Nasa's Space Shuttle nearly 40 years ago.

Passionate about space from a young age

Mr Al Qarni said that he has always been fascinated by the skies.

But his passion to pursue a career as an astronaut developed after he visited the Johnson Space Centre in Houston many years ago.

When the Saudi Space Commission announced that it was recruiting astronauts, he applied without hesitation.

“I grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia, but with big dreams,” Mr Al Qarni said.

“I was training with the US Air Force and I remember that one weekend, we landed in Ellington Airfield, and we had the chance to visit the space centre in Houston and meet with a couple of astronauts.

“I think that was the moment that triggered my interest in space.”

Ms Barnawi said that her interest in space grew as she was training for the mission.

She said she is most excited about carrying out stem cell research during her stay on the ISS.

Breakthrough science experiments in space

The four crew members have been assigned 20 experiments, including 14 that Ms Barnawi and Mr Al Qarni will carry out for Saudi scientists on the ground.

One of the experiments they will carry out is testing cloud-seeding techniques in a reaction chamber.

Another investigation is for the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre and involves studying the inflammatory response of human immune cells in microgravity.

They will also investigate changes in mRNA – a genetic material that tells the body how to make proteins.

How to watch the launch

SpaceX and Axiom Space will do a live broadcast of the launch on their website and social media channels.

There is a back-up launch date set for May 23.

But if that opportunity is also missed, the crew may have to wait until the summer, as Nasa and SpaceX will have to prioritise other missions that are coming up.

SpaceX said that it was tracking the weather for launch day.

Updated: May 22, 2023, 7:53 AM