Space Flight

Axiom’s U.S.-Saudi Crew Approved for Private Mission to Space Station

NASA and its international partners have approved the crew lineup for Axiom Space’s second privately funded mission to the International Space Station — a lineup that includes the first Saudi woman cleared to go into orbit.

Two of the former crew members — former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner, a Tennessee business executive, race car driver and aviator — had previously been announced.

They’ll be joined by Ali AlQarni and Rayyannah Barnawi, representing Saudi Arabia’s national astronaut program. Only one other Saudi citizen — Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, who flew on the space shuttle Discovery in 1985 — has ever been in space. The 10-day Axiom Space mission, known as Ax-2, is currently scheduled for this spring.

AlQarni, 31, is a Royal Saudi Air Force captain and fighter pilot, according to the Saudi Space Commission’s bio. Barnawi, 33, is a research laboratory specialist with nine years of experience in cancer stem cell research. Two other participants in the Saudi space program, Mariam Fardous and Ali AlGamdi, are being trained as backups.

The Saudi Space Commission says the Axiom Space mission “is an integral milestone of a comprehensive program aiming to train and qualify experienced Saudis to undertake human spaceflight, conduct scientific experiments, participate in international research, and future space-related missions contributing to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.”

Whitson already has her name in space history books as the first female commander of the International Space Station and the record-holder for the longest cumulative time in space by a NASA astronaut. She retired from NASA’s astronaut corps in 2018 and joined Axiom Space soon afterward.

Ax2 will make her the first female commander of a private-sector space mission. She’ll be the only one of the four crew members with previous space experience.

“I’m honored to be heading back to the station for the fourth time, leading this talented Ax-2 crew on their first mission,” Whitson said today in a NASA news release. “This is a strong and cohesive team determined to conduct meaningful scientific research in space and inspire a new generation about the benefits of microgravity. It’s a testament to the power of science and discovery to unify and build international collaboration.”

Houston-based Axiom Space sent three millionaire investors into orbit last April under the command of a former NASA astronaut. That marked the first time a U.S. company organized a space station tour for paying customers, but the trip wasn’t totally unprecedented: Russia’s Roscosmos space agency has supported similar ISS trips for deep-pocketed spacefliers since 2001, and the Inspiration4 space effort executed a philanthropic orbital mission (which didn’t stop at the space station) in September 2021.

Like Axiom Space’s first mission, the Ax-2 mission will use SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule to get the crew to and from the space station. The crew members for Ax-1 were each said to have paid a fare of roughly $55 million — and although the ticket price for Ax-2 hasn’t been announced, it’s likely to be in the same ballpark.

Axiom Space sees such missions as setting the stage for its own orbital outpost, which would start out as a module attached to the International Space Station and eventually become the core of a stand-alone commercial space station.

“Axiom Space’s second private astronaut mission to the International Space Station cements our mission of expanding access to space worldwide and supporting the growth of the low-Earth-orbit economy as we build Axiom Station,” Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space, said in a news release. “Ax-2 moves Axiom Space one step closer toward the realization of a commercial space station in low-Earth orbit and enables us to build on the legacy and achievements of the ISS, leveraging the benefits of microgravity to better life on Earth.” 

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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