Four astronauts arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) on Monday as part of a private astronaut mission by Axiom Space, which hopes to build its own space station in low Earth orbit later this decade.
The mission, called Axiom-2 (Ax-2) is the second private astronaut mission to be launched on the ISS, with more flights planned. Axiom Space is one of several companies working to build the next generation of space stations in low Earth orbit.
Its diverse crew consists of two women and two men, led by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. He was accompanied by John Shoffner, an American businessman and pilot; Ali Alqarni, a fighter pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force; and Rayyanah Barnawi, a biomedical researcher specializing in stem cell research.
The quartet, joining seven others aboard the space station, launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday. Strapped inside the Crew Dragon Freedom, the crew blasts off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. They will conduct several scientific investigations and technology demonstrations before returning to Earth on May 31.
Private space efforts are gaining ground
By sending astronauts to the space station for shorter missions, the company is trying to streamline its processes and procedures as it continues to build its space station. And by involving private astronauts who are not from NASA’s astronaut corps or from other prominent space agencies, Axiom Space aims to make space more accessible, with the help of SpaceX and NASA.
In 2015, SpaceX changed the rocket game by doing something previously thought impossible: landing a rocket. The company would go on to repeat that feat several times, eventually repairing and reflying the rockets it acquired.
With that, SpaceX started a campaign to reduce the cost of access to space, thus enabling more researchers, organizations and even countries like Bangladesh to participate.
Just three years after SpaceX recovered its first rocket, the company debuted a souped-up version of the Falcon 9 rocket that allowed Bangladesh to launch its first satellite – Bangabandhu-1 – into space.
Since then, SpaceX has expanded its efforts to offer rideshare missions – a kind of cosmic Uber pool that allows many satellites to ride in space as long as they are not selective about the orbit. After launch, the Falcon 9 rocket deposited the satellites on board in a preliminary parking spot, and they settled into their respective orbits from there.
This type of mission enables customers to share the cost of the rocket, reducing costs for any organization.
Expansion of global space flight
Axiom Space works in tandem by brokering seats on flights, and helping more people reach orbit. The company bills itself as a full-service orbital mission provider, which means it helps with every step of the process — from training to launch and more — to send astronauts into space.
Axiom Space announced an agreement with the Saudi Space Commission (SSC) in 2022, with company representatives declaring that space belongs to all mankind. “This partnership underscores Axiom Space’s deep commitment to expanding the opportunities of human spaceflight to a greater part of the international community, as well as to the proliferation of scientific and technological development on Earth and in orbit,” company representatives said at the time in a statement.
Barnawi and Alqarni are only the second and third Saudi astronauts to fly into space, with the king’s son, Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, the first Arab astronaut to fly into space, aboard the space shuttle in 1985. Barnawi and Alqarni were the first two Saudis to fly to the space station. They joined Sultan Al Neyadi, an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates, who launched NASA’s Crew-6 mission earlier this year.
Barnawi and Alqarni’s stay was brief but filled with research as well as educational outreach. Barnawi said he hopes to inspire people in his country, especially women and girls, to dream big.
“I am honored and very happy to represent all the dreams and all the hopes of the people of Saudi Arabia and all the women at home,” she said before her launch. “This is a great opportunity for me to represent the country, to represent their dreams.”
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