Axiom’s Next Trip to the ISS Will Carry the First Saudi Woman in Space

Axiom Space says it’s working with the Saudi Space Commission to send two spacefliers from the Arab kingdom, including the first Saudi woman to go into orbit, to the International Space Station as early as next year.

The inclusion of a female astronaut is particularly notable for Saudi Arabia — where women were forbidden to drive motor vehicles until 2018, and where the status of women is still a controversial subject.

Houston-based Axiom Space and the Saudi Space Commission announced their partnership today at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris. In a news release, the Saudi commission said its participation in Axiom’s Ax-2 mission is part of the nation’s effort “to conduct scientific experiments and research for the betterment of humanity in priority areas such as health, sustainability and space technology.” It acknowledged that including a woman astronaut “will represent a historical first for the Kingdom.”

Axiom Space conducted its first commercial mission to the ISS in April. The Ax-1 mission sent three millionaire investors to the ISS in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for a 17-day orbital trip. Ax-2, tentatively set for the first half of 2023, is expected to follow a similar flight plan.

Two other members of the Ax-2 crew have already been named. Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is due to command the mission, and race car driver John Shoffner has signed up as mission pilot. Axiom and NASA announced last month that they’ve signed the mission order for Ax-2 — and NASA and its space station partners are expected to end up approving Axiom’s crew selections.

Axiom Space’s president and CEO, Michael Suffredini (left) meets with Saudi officials Abdullah bin Amer Al-Swahha and Mohammed Saud Al Tamimi to sign documents on space cooperation. (Credit: Saudi Space Commission)

Axiom Space is the first company to take advantage of NASA’s commercial spaceflight participant program, which was set up in 2019. Axiom handles the logistics for its crewed missions, including the arrangements for training, launch and recovery, with reimbursement to NASA for the space agency’s expenses. The customers for Ax-1 were said to have paid $55 million each for their ride.

Among the clients rumored to be interested in an Axiom Space trip is Hollywood actor Tom Cruise, who’s been in contact with NASA and SpaceX about filming a movie in space. Producers for that project say they’ve been working with Axiom to build a commercial module for the International Space Station that could serve as a film studio.

Last year, the Discovery TV network said it was in contact with Axiom about flying the winner of a reality-TV show tentatively titled “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut.” At the time, Discovery said it hoped to put the winner on the Ax-2 mission, but the TV project appears to have sunk into pre-production limbo.

Axiom Space isn’t interested merely in sending customers to the International Space Station. It’s also building its own commercial space module that could initially be attached to the ISS and eventually serve as the core of a stand-alone space station. And just this month, NASA awarded Axiom a contract to manufacture the spacesuits that its astronauts would use for moonwalks during the Artemis 3 mission.

Axiom made several other announcements during this week’s IAC meeting: