Spacex Sends Saudi Astronauts, Including Nation’s 1st Woman In Space, To International Space Station

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon capsule and a crew of four private astronauts, lifts off from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Saudi Arabia’s first astronauts in decades rocketed toward the International Space Station on a chartered multimillion-dollar flight Sunday.

SpaceX launched the ticket-holding crew, led by a retired NASA astronaut now working for the company that arranged the trip from Kennedy Space Center. Also on board: a U.S. businessman who now owns a sports car racing team.

The four should reach the space station in their capsule Monday morning; they’ll spend just over a week there before returning home with a splashdown off the Florida coast.

The crew of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Crew Dragon spacecraft, from left, Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi, commandeer Peggy Whitson, pilot John Shoffner and Saudi Arabian astronaut Ali al-Qarni arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., before their launch to the International Space Station, Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government, Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher, became the first woman from the kingdom to go to space. She was joined by Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot with the Royal Saudi Air Force.

They’re the first from their country to ride a rocket since a Saudi prince launched aboard shuttle Discovery in 1985. In a quirk of timing, they’ll be greeted at the station by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates.

In this image from NASA TV, top row from left, Ali al-Qarni, John Shoffner, Rayyanah Barnawi, and Peggy Whitson, pose for a picture with current residents of the International Space Station, Monday, May 22, 2023. The space station rolled out the welcome mat for the two Saudi visitors, including the kingdom’s first female astronaut. (NASA TV via AP)

“Hello from outer space! It feels amazing to be viewing Earth from this capsule,” Barnawi said after settling into orbit.

Added al-Qarni: “As I look outside into space, I can’t help but think this is just the beginning of a great journey for all of us.”

Saudi Arabian astronaut Ali al-Qarni greets family and friends as he arrives at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for a scheduled launch Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Rounding out the visiting crew: Knoxville, Tennessee’s John Shoffner, former driver and owner of a sports car racing team that competes in Europe, and chaperone Peggy Whitson, the station’s first female commander who holds the U.S. record for most accumulated time in space: 665 days and counting.

“It was a phenomenal ride,” Whitson said after reaching orbit. Her crewmates clapped their hands in joy.

Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi waves to family and friends as she arrives at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for a scheduled launch Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

It’s the second private flight to the space station organized by Houston-based Axiom Space. The first was last year by three businessmen, with another retired NASA astronaut. The company plans to start adding its own rooms to the station in another few years, eventually removing them to form a stand-alone outpost available for hire.

Axiom won’t say how much Shoffner and Saudi Arabia are paying for the planned 10-day mission. The company had previously cited a ticket price of $55 million each.

NASA’s latest price list shows per-person, per-day charges of $2,000 for food and up to $1,500 for sleeping bags and other gear. Need to get your stuff to the space station in advance? Figure roughly $10,000 per pound ($20,000 per kilogram), the same fee for trashing it afterward. Need your items back intact? Double the price.

At least the email and video links are free.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon capsule and a crew of four private astronauts, lifts off from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The guests will have access to most of the station as they conduct experiments, photograph Earth and chat with schoolchildren back home, demonstrating how kites fly in space when attached to a fan.

After decades of shunning space tourism, NASA now embraces it with two private missions planned a year. The Russian Space Agency has been doing it, off and on, for decades.

“Our job is to expand what we do in low-Earth orbit across the globe,” said NASA’s space station program manager Joel Montalbano.

SpaceX’s first-stage booster landed back at Cape Canaveral eight minutes after liftoff — a special treat for the launch day crowd, which included about 60 Saudis. “It was a very, very exciting day,” said Axiom’s Matt Ondler.

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MARCIA DUNN reported from CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida.