In a historic moment, taking the dreams of all Saudi citizens to fly high on board, astronauts Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al Qarni have been launched into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The astronauts blasted off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, in the US state of Florida on Sunday at 12:37 a.m. The Dragon spacecraft will travel for 16 hours to the ISS, with arrival expected at 4:30 p.m. on Monday.
The astronauts took off on board the dreams of their proud families, the entire nation and its excited people, marking the first dispatch of Saudi nationals to foray into space in almost four decades.
Barnawi and Al Qarni are expected to join fellow Arab astronaut, the UAE’s Sultan Al-Neyadi, on ISS on Monday. It will mark the first time astronauts from two Arab countries meet onboard ISS. Hours before the launch, Al-Neyadi sent a good-luck message to Barnawi and Al Qarni on Twitter.
Once docked, the astronauts plan to spend eight days aboard the orbiting laboratory, carrying out a full mission comprised of science, outreach and commercial activities. During their mission, Barnawi and Al Qarni will conduct 20 experiments, including research into predicting and preventing cancer and a study into how to generate artificial rain in future human settlements on the Moon and Mars.
Barnawi, the first female Arab astronaut and a breast cancer researcher, and fighter pilot Ali Al Qarni embarked on their flight to the ISS on a private mission to carry out a number of experiments. The duo will be joined by Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut, and US pilot John Shoffner.
Barnawi and Al Qarni were seen smiling and waving while heading to the Dragon spacecraft, prior to the launch. The astronauts said they are excited and proud to embark on the Saudi mission to outer space. The duo met their families and greeted all those around before boarding the launch vehicle.
NASA began a live broadcast of the launch live on its website and social media channels at 12:30 a.m. and confirmed that all the astronauts had donned their spacesuits ready for launch. Dragon spacecraft hatch closed for flight at about midnight. At 10 minutes before the launch, the final ‘go’ was given, with NASA saying: “Let Freedom fly.”
Abdullah Al-Sawha, minister of communications and IT and deputy head of the Supreme Space Council, and Princess Reema bint Bandar, Saudi ambassador to United States, witnessed the launch from Kennedy Space Center.
About an hour before lift-off, a spokesman of the Saudi Space Commission said the historic space mission was just the start for the Kingdom’s ambitions into space.
"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. Barnawi 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.
As for Al Qarni, the mission is a passion long realized. “It is a great opportunity for me to pursue this kind of passion that I have, and now ... fly among the stars,” he 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."
According to the Saudi Press Agency, the team will carry out 14 experiments focused on “human research, cell sciences, and cloud seeding experiments in the microgravity environment”. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the mission is also to expand space science education in the Kingdom. Saudi male and female students will participate in scientific experiments conducted on the ISS.
The US space agency NASA, SpaceX, Axiom Space and the Saudi Space Commission confirmed, during a press conference in Orlando, Florida, earlier on Sunday that preparations for the AX-2 space mission were completed as scheduled. Addressing the press conference, Eng. Mishaal Ashemimry, special advisor to CEO of the Saudi Space Commission, described the launch of the space flight as a historic moment for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and for the entire Arab region, saying that it represents a source of inspiration for the Saudi and Arab youth. She said that Saudi citizens throughout the Kingdom are excited about this scientific mission of their astronauts.
Saudi Arabia established the Saudi Space Commission in 2018 and launched a program last year to send astronauts into space. The team is set to carry out some 20 experiments while on the ISS. One of them involves studying the behavior of stem cells in zero gravity. They will join seven others already on board the ISS: three Russians, three Americans and UAE astronaut Sultan Al-Neyadi, who was the first Arab national to go on a spacewalk last month.
The mission to the ISS will be the second in partnership with ISS-key holder NASA by Axiom Space, a private space company, which offers the rare voyages for sums that run into the millions of dollars. The voyage of the Saudi astronauts comes within the framework of the Kingdom’s program for astronauts, which aims to qualify experienced Saudi cadres for space flights, and to participate in conducting scientific experiments, international research and future missions related to the space sector.