WASHINGTON — The government of Saudi Arabia has announced the two astronauts who will fly to the International Space Station this spring on a private astronaut mission by Axiom Space.
The Saudi Space Commission said Feb. 12 that Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Alqarni will be part of the Ax-2 mission to the ISS scheduled for launch no earlier than May on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. They will join the mission’s commander, former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, and a customer, John Shoffner, for the mission scheduled to spend 10 days at the station.
Barnawi and Alqarni will be the second and third Saudi citizens to go to space, after Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, who flew as a payload specialist on a space shuttle mission in 1985. Barnawi will be the first female Saudi astronaut.
Alqarni is a 31-year-old fighter pilot in the Saudi air force and Barnawi is a 33-year-old cancer researcher. The two will conduct 14 biomedical and physics experiments during their time on the station, the Saudi Space Commission said, but didn’t go into details about plans for their mission.
The Saudi Space Commission said two other astronauts, Mariam Fardous and Ali Alghamdi, will train as backups for the mission. All four astronauts are part of a new astronaut program announced by the Saudi space agency last September.
That September announcement coincided with an agreement between the Saudi government and Axiom Space to fly two astronauts on a future mission. That announcement did not disclose when they would fly, although there was speculation at the time they could be on Ax-2, which had two open spots on its four-person crew.
A NASA official confirmed at a November meeting of an agency advisory committee that the Saudi astronauts would fly on Ax-2, and that they had started training. NASA did not disclose their identities then, or in a Jan. 20 statement that announced that the ISS partners had approved the full crew for Ax-2.
“We work very hard to meet their needs, and they have chosen to wait a little while to announce their crew,” Michael Suffredini, chief executive of Axiom, said of the then-undisclosed customer for those two Ax-2 seats at a Jan. 30 media briefing. “I think in the next week or two there will be an announcement of the specific individuals.”
Ax-2 will take place a little more than a year after Ax-1, the company’s first private astronaut mission that sent four people to the ISS for what became a 17-day mission.
“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,” Suffredini said in a Feb. 13 statement about the Ax-2 crew. “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.”
Ax-2 is a second in a series of private astronaut missions Axiom has planned to the ISS ahead of installing a series of commercial modules to the station. Those modules will serve as the core of a standalone space station, separating from the ISS before the ISS is retired around 2030.
While Ax-1 flew three private citizens, along with Axiom employee and former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, future missions will follow the lead of Ax-2 of primarily flying government astronauts. Suffredini said at the briefing last month he expected only one private individual among the crews of Ax-3 and -4.
“I’m honored to be heading back to the ISS for the fourth time, leading this talented Ax-2 crew on their first mission,” said Whitson in a company statement. She flew three long-duration ISS missions as a NASA astronaut and holds the U.S. record for cumulative time in space at more than 660 days. “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.”