Saudi astronauts, including nation's 1st woman, make historic journey to ISS

Saudi Arabia's space ambitions soar as astronauts embark on ISS expedition

SpaceX Crew Launch The crew of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Crew Dragon spacecraft, from left, Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi, commandeer Peggy Whitson, pilot John Shoffner and Saudi Arabian astronaut Ali al-Qarni arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., before their launch to the International Space Station May 21 | AP

In a historic moment, Saudi Arabia's inaugural group of astronauts embarked on a private spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday. Facilitated by a specialised company, the crew, led by a former NASA astronaut now employed by SpaceX, soared skyward. Accompanying them was a prominent American entrepreneur who currently owns a racing team dedicated to sports cars.

Anticipated to arrive at the space station on Monday morning, the quartet will spend slightly over a week conducting research and fulfilling their mission before returning to Earth with a planned splashdown off the coast of Florida.

Rayyanah Barnawi, a respected stem cell researcher, achieved a significant milestone as she became Saudi Arabia's first woman to venture into space. Joining her on this groundbreaking journey is Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot serving in the Royal Saudi Air Force.

Notably, these individuals mark the first Saudi Arabian citizens to embark on a rocket launch since a Saudi prince's historic journey aboard the space shuttle Discovery back in 1985. In a remarkable convergence of events, they will be warmly received at the space station by an astronaut hailing from the United Arab Emirates.

This mission, sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government, represents a monumental step forward in the nation's space exploration endeavors, showcasing their commitment to scientific advancement and fostering collaboration with international partners.

SpaceX Crew Launch Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi waves to family and friends as she arrives at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral | AP

"This is a dream come true for everyone," Barnawi said before the flight. "Just being able to understand that this is possible. If me and Ali can do it, then they can do it, too."

Rounding out the visiting crew: Knoxville, Tennessee's John Shoffner, former driver and owner of a sports car racing team that competes in Europe, and chaperone Peggy Whitson, the station's first female commander who holds the US record for most accumulated time in space: 665 days and counting.

It's the second private flight to the space station organized by Houston-based Axiom Space. The first was last year by three businessmen, with another retired NASA astronaut. The company plans to start adding its own rooms to the station in another few years, eventually removing them to form a stand-alone outpost available for hire.

Axiom won't say how much Shoffner and Saudi Arabia are paying for the planned 10-day mission. The company had previously cited a ticket price of $55 million each.

NASA's latest price list shows per-person, per-day charges of $2,000 for food and up to USD 1,500 for sleeping bags and other gear. Need to get your stuff to the space station in advance? Figure roughly USD 20,000 per kilogram, the same fee for trashing it afterward. Need your items back intact? Double the price.

At least the email and video links are free.

The guests will have access to most of the station as they conduct experiments, photograph Earth and chat with schoolchildren back home, demonstrating how kites fly in space when attached to a fan.

After decades of shunning space tourism, NASA now embraces it with two private missions planned a year. The Russian Space Agency has been doing it, off and on, for decades.

"Our job is to expand what we do in low-Earth orbit across the globe," said NASA's space station program manager Joel Montalbano.

(With inputs from AP)