Published: 2023-05-21 14:31
Last Updated: 2023-06-07 21:33
A private mission to the International Space Station (ISS) organized by Axiom Space is due to blast off from Florida Sunday, carrying the first two Saudi astronauts to go to the orbiting laboratory.
Rayyanah Barnawi, a breast cancer researcher, will become the first Saudi woman to voyage into space and will be joined on the mission by fellow Saudi Ali Al-Qarni, a fighter pilot.
The Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) crew will take off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in the southern state of Florida at 5:37 pm.
The team also includes Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who will be making her fourth flight to the ISS, and John Shoffner, a businessman from Tennessee who will serve as pilot.
They are due to spend around 10 days on board the ISS, where they should arrive around 1:30 pm Monday.
"Being the first Saudi woman astronaut, representing the region, it's a great pleasure and honor that I'm very happy to carry," said Barnawi at a recent press conference.
She added that, aside from excitement for the research she will carry out on board, she is looking forward to sharing her experience with kids while on the ISS.
"Being able to see their faces when they see astronauts from their own region for the first time is very thrilling," she said.
A career fighter pilot, Al-Qarni said he has "always had the passion of exploring the unknown and just admiring the sky and the stars."
"It is a great opportunity for me to pursue this kind of passion that I have, and now maybe just fly among the stars."
The mission is not Saudi Arabia's first foray into space.
In 1985, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, an air force pilot, took part in a US-organized space voyage.
But the space mission involving a Saudi woman is the latest move by the oil-rich Gulf kingdom, where women only gained the right to drive a few years ago, to revamp its ultraconservative image.
The kingdom established the Saudi Space Commission in 2018 and launched a program last year to send astronauts into space.