Saudi astronauts to fly on Ax-2 mission to ISS

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WASHINGTON — NASA confirmed Nov. 1 that two astronauts from Saudi Arabia will go to the International Space Station on a private mission in the spring of 2023 operated by Axiom Space.

Speaking at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee, Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s commercial LEO development program, said that two Saudi mission specialists, yet to be publicly named, would accompany Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner on the Ax-2 mission, a Crew Dragon flight set to launch no earlier than May 1, 2023, to the station.

The names of the two Saudis on the flight have not been released, she said, but that “we are working very hard with them on training already.” A slide for her presentation noted the two would be named after formal approval by the ISS program’s Multilateral Crew Operations Panel. That slide also stated that crew training for the mission started Oct. 17.

The Saudi Space Commission and Axiom Space separately announced Sept. 22 plans to fly two Saudi citizens on a future Axiom Space mission. However, while it was widely rumored the two would fly on Ax-2, neither announcement stated a specific mission. The Saudi statement said that one of the two people would be a woman but did not disclose how the astronauts would be selected. The commission did not respond to questions at the time about the selection process.

The upcoming Ax-2 mission, Hart said, will be similar to the Ax-1 private astronaut mission that spent two weeks at the station in April. The 10-day mission will conduct commercial and non-profit research and other activities at the station.

“We learned a lot on the first mission,” she said. “We have completed updating a lot of our planning milestones and deliverables and timelines based on the Ax-1 lessons learned.”

Among the lessons incorporated for future missions is a new requirement that private astronaut missions be commanded by a former NASA astronaut with flight experience. NASA said in August it was adding that requirement based on experience from Ax-1, which was commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, and “other recent civilian-crew spaceflight.”

The change does not apply to Ax-2, but Axiom had already named Whitson, a former astronaut, as commander. The requirement does apply to two future private astronaut missions that NASA solicited proposals for in September that would go to the ISS between late 2023 and the end of 2024.

Those proposals were due to NASA Oct. 27, Hart said, with selections expected late this year or early next year. In addition to the requirement about the mission’s commander, NASA instituted “stricter workday requirements,” she said, to address packed schedules, as well as built in time for crews to adapt to the station and to set up and tear down equipment.