Saudi astronauts return safely to Earth after historic space mission

Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al Qarni spent eight days aboard the International Space Station

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Two Saudi astronauts safely returned to Earth on Wednesday, after spending eight days on the International Space Station.

Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al Qarni made history as the first Saudi astronauts to go on a mission to the orbiting outpost.

Ms Barnawi, 33, a research scientist, has also become the first Arab woman to go to space.

A SpaceX Dragon capsule that was carrying the two Saudi and two American astronauts made a parachute-assisted splashdown off the coast of Florida at 7.04am GST.

The Ax-2 crew, which also included Americans Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner, spent 12 hours in space, before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere at 7am.

“That was a phenomenal ride,” Ms Whitson said, as the Dragon capsule splashed down in the Florida waters.

A SpaceX recovery boat helped unlock the spacecraft's hatch and retrieve the crew.

Ms Barnawi and Mr Al Qarni were a little unsteady while attempting to walk, as their bodies re-adjusted to gravity.

Earlier, Ms Barnawi delivered an emotional farewell on the ISS a day before their departure.

“Every story comes to an end, and this is only the beginning of a new era for our country and our region,” she said.

Mr Al Qarni, 31, thanked his colleagues aboard the station, including UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, who is there on a six-month mission.

The fighter pilot had duties to complete on departure day, including closing the hatch from inside the Dragon capsule for a timely undocking.

“You are such an amazing inspiration and I have learnt a lot from you,” he said.

“And I've enjoyed my time here and hopefully in the future we will be back on another trip very soon.”

Saudi astronauts leave International Space Station

Saudi astronauts leave International Space Station

Dr Al Neyadi gave his best wishes to his Saudi colleagues after they left the station.

“Safe travels Ax-2 crew. It was a pleasure working with all of you and we have made great memories,” he tweeted.

“Ali and Rayyanah, I will surely miss speaking Arabic aboard the ISS. Adieu for now and may our paths cross again.”

Ms Barnawi and Mr Al Qarni were the first Saudi astronauts to go to space in nearly 40 years, when Prince Sultan bin Salman launched on a Nasa Space Shuttle in 1985 for a week-long trip.

They carried out several science experiments during their time on the ISS, including ones on life sciences and weather technology.

Ms Barnawi, who has a decade of experience in breast cancer research, did studies on human immune cells and their inflammatory response in microgravity.

Dr Al Neyadi assisted her with the research.

Mr Al Qarni also had a busy schedule, with research that involved studying different cloud seeding techniques in microgravity conditions.

He mixed salt crystals and moist air in a reaction chamber to see if water droplets would form.

The two Saudi astronauts also spent much of their time on the ISS doing outreach activities.

Updated: May 31, 2023, 4:49 AM