First Saudi astronauts blast off to space station

Published May 23, 2023
SAUDI astronauts Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi arrive on the International Space Station orbiting Earth in a still image from video.—Reuters
SAUDI astronauts Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi arrive on the International Space Station orbiting Earth in a still image from video.—Reuters

WASHINGTON: A SpaceX capsule carrying two Saudi astronauts docked with the International Space Station on Monday, as part of a private mission chartered by Axiom Space.

Rayyanah Barnawi, a scientist who became the first Saudi woman to go into space, and Ali Al-Qarni, a trained fighter pilot, are the first two people from their country to go to the orbital outpost.

“It was a lovely ride,” said mission commander Peggy Whitson, a former Nasa astronaut who made the voyage three times in the past, adding: “It was the softest docking I’ve ever felt.” The fourth crew member is American businessman John Shoffner.

About two hours after docking, the capsule opened to allow the four to enter the ISS, where they joined the seven astronauts already on board (three Russians, three Americans, and an Emirati).

The SpaceX rocket took off from Florida on Sunday, and the trip to the ISS, which flies around 250 miles (400 kilometres) above the Earth, lasted about 16 hours.

This mission, named Ax-2, is the second fully private mission to visit the Space Station, following a first in April 2022. The members of Ax-2 will stay for about ten days and carry out about 20 experiments.

The mission is not Saudi Arabia’s first foray into space. In 1985, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, an air force pilot, took part in a US-organised space voyage.

“I reflect on my experience in space many years ago, and I am happy that Saudi Arabia has returned to space once again,” he said at a watch party for the Ax-2 launch in Riyadh. “God willing, this is just the beginning.”

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2023

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