Saudi Astronauts Sent to Space Station by SpaceX on Private Mission

Saudi Arabia’s first astronauts in decades were launched towards the International Space Station on Sunday afternoon. The chartered multimillion-dollar flight by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 accommodated the four-person crew, which was led by a retired NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom Space, the company that arranged the trip. Also on board was a US businessman who owns a sports car racing team. With the reusable first-stage landing near the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, the crew is scheduled to reach the space station in their capsule on Monday morning after just over a week there, before returning home with a splashdown off the Florida coast.

Sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government, Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher, became the first woman from the kingdom to go into space, joined by Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot with the Royal Saudi Air Force. They were the first from their country to ride a rocket since a Saudi prince launched aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1985. In a remarkable twist of fate, they will be welcomed at the station by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates.

\”This is a dream come true for everyone,” said Barnawi before the flight. \”Just being able to understand that this is possible. If Ali and I can do it, then others like us can do it too.\” Rounding out the visiting crew are Knoxville, Tennessee’s John Shoffner, a former driver and owner of a sports car racing team that competes in Europe, and Peggy Whitson, the station’s first female commander who holds the US record for the most accumulated time in space: 665 days and counting.

Houston-based Axiom Space organized this second private flight to the space station—the first was in 2020 with three businessmen and another retired NASA astronaut. The company intends to add its own rooms to the station in a few years and subsequently remove them to create a stand-alone outpost that will be available for hire. Axiom declined to disclose the cost of the planned 10-day mission for Shoffner and Saudi Arabia. However, the firm had previously stated that each ticket would cost USD 55 million.

According to NASA’s latest price list, food costs USD 2,000 per person per day, while sleeping bags and other gear cost up to USD 1,500. Shipping items to the space station ahead of time involves a charge of around USD 10,000 per pound (USD 20,000 per kilogram), the same as the cost of disposing of it afterward. To have items returned undamaged, the price doubles. Fortunately, email and video links are provided free of cost.

The visiting crew will have access to most of the station, as they conduct experiments, photograph Earth, and converse with schoolchildren back home. They will even demonstrate, among other things, how kites fly when connected to a fan in space. After avoiding space tourism for years, NASA now plans two private missions every year. The Russian Space Agency has been dabbling in space tourism for decades. According to NASA’s space station program manager Joel Montalbano, \”Our job is to expand what we do in low-Earth orbit across the globe.\”

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