Launch of SpaceX Mission with Former NASA Astronaut and Three Paying Customers

On Sunday afternoon, a SpaceX rocket took off from Florida with a former NASA pilot who had won awards and three paying customers. The group is going to stay on the International Space Station for a week.

Their trip, which was put together by a company in Houston called Axiom Space, is the second all-private mission to the space station. The project, called AX-2, is making history because Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher from Saudi Arabia, is the first woman from her country to go to space.

Sunday afternoon, the crew got on the SpaceX rocket as weather experts kept a close eye on storms. Florida is moving into its summer rainy season, which makes it a little harder to find perfect conditions for rocket launches.

In the end, though, weather officials gave the launch the green light, and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket roared to life, sending the Crew Dragon ship and its four passengers into orbit.

The crew will spend the next 16 hours on Crew Dragon as it free-flies through Earth’s orbit and carefully moves to line up with the International Space Station. On Monday at 9:24 a.m. ET, the ship should dock with the lab in space.

The AX-2 project is one of a series of missions that Axiom Space and NASA hope will keep the private sector interested in spaceflight, especially in low-Earth orbit, where the space station is located.

The AX-2 crew is being led by Peggy Whitson, 63, a former NASA pilot who now works for Axiom. With this journey, Whitson also became the first woman to lead a private spaceflight.

One of the three paid customers joining her is John Shoffner, an American who made his money in the international telecom business and started the hardware company Dura-Line Corp.

Saudi Arabia also paid to fly two Saudis, Barnawi and Ali AlQarni, a fighter pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force.

Last week, Barnawi told reporters, “I am very honored and happy to represent all the dreams and hopes of all the people in Saudi Arabia and all the women back home.”

After the Crew Dragon ship docks early Monday morning, the AX-2 crew will join the seven astronauts who are already on board the space station.

The AX-2 guests will spend about eight days working with the current crew. During that time, they’ll work on more than 20 studies and science projects, such as stem cell research and other biomedical projects.

The AX-2 Crew

Whitson hasn’t been back to space since 2017. Because she had spent so much time on the station before, she holds the US record for the most days spent in space all together and is eighth on the all-time list.

Whitson has flown on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and NASA’s space shuttle. She said that preparing for this trip was “obviously different” because she had to learn how to operate SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has only been flying astronauts since 2020.

“Learning how to use this spacecraft has been one of the hardest things for me,” she said. “But I’ve had a great time.”

Barnawi and AlQarni are the only two Saudis who have ever been to space. Prince Sultan bin Salman was the first. In 1985, he spent about a week on a NASA space shuttle flight.

The Biden government and Congress have been very critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, but relations between the US and Saudi Arabia are still strong.

AlQarni said that he thinks Arabs going into space is a “great opportunity” that can be a source of inspiration for the region.

It will have a very important message. “We are holding hands, working together for the good of all people, and just trying to come up with new ideas,” he told reporters last week.

The Future of Private Spaceflight

It’s not the first time people have paid to go to space. In the early 2000s, a company called Space Adventures booked rides on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for rich thrill seekers who wanted to go on such trips to the space station.

Axiom brought this way of doing business to the U.S. by working with SpaceX to set up a way for a wide range of customers to get to the space station. The first flight of the company, called AX-1, took off in April 2022. It was the first time that private people from the US went to the space station.

The goal of Axiom is to make these trips more common so that more people who are not professional astronauts can go into space. During a press conference before the launch, Derek Hassmann, who is in charge of mission integration and operations at Axiom Space, said that his company hopes to get more customers like the Saudi Arabians on the AX-2.

He said, “Government astronauts are, in fact, a key part of our business plan.” “Early on in the program, it wasn’t clear to us how business people and government astronauts would work together, since nothing like this had ever been done before. But it’s become clear to us that the government market is the most important, so we’re eagerly pursuing it.

The people in charge of Axiom think that private space travel will continue even after the space station is taken down, which NASA thinks will happen in 2030. Axiom is one of several US companies that want to build a new space station that will be privately owned. It’s an attempt that NASA is behind. The goal is to get more private companies involved closer to home so that NASA can put more money into deep-space exploration.

The AX-2 crew will work on the space station with the professional astronauts, but they will have different routines. Once they get on board, the current team will show them how things work, including how to use the kitchen and bathroom. Hassmann says that some areas, like the air lock that astronauts use to go on space walks, will stay off-limits.

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