Sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Rayyanah Barnawi, a breast cancer researcher, is the first Arab woman to go into space.
A private rocket carrying the first Arab female astronaut has blasted off on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
Rayyanah Barnawi, a breast cancer researcher from Saudi Arabia, was joined on Sunday’s mission by fellow Saudi Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot.
The couple are the first Saudi astronauts to travel in space in decades.
They took off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in the southern United States at 5:37 pm local time (21:37 GMT).
The team also included Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who will make her fourth flight to the ISS, and John Shoffner, a businessman from Tennessee who served as the pilot.
The four should arrive at the space station in their capsule on Monday morning and will spend just one week there before returning home with a splashdown on the coast of the southern US state of Florida.
“Hello from space! The view of the Earth from this capsule is very beautiful,” Barnawi said after setting up the orbit.
Sponsored by the Saudi government, Barnawi previously said it was “a great pleasure and honor” to be the first Saudi female astronaut to sail into space.
Besides being excited for the research she will be doing on board, she said she is looking forward to sharing her experience with children while on the ISS. “Seeing their faces when they see astronauts from their own region for the first time is very exciting,” he said.
A career fighter pilot, al-Qarni said he had “always had a passion for exploring the unknown and just admiring the sky and the stars”.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to continue this kind of passion that I have, and now maybe just fly among the stars,” he said.
The couple were the first from their country to board a rocket since a Saudi prince traveled aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. In a quirk of timing, they were met at the station by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates.
The mission is the second private flight to the space station organized by Houston-based Axiom Space.
The first of last year’s three entrepreneurs, along with another retired NASA astronaut. The company plans to begin adding its own rooms to the station in a few years, eventually removing it to become a stand-alone outpost available for rent.
Axiom would not say how much Saudi Arabia and Shoffner, the Tennessee businessman, paid for the planned 10-day mission. The company previously quoted a ticket price of $55m each.
After decades of rejecting space tourism, NASA has embraced it with two private missions planned each year. The Russian Space Agency has been doing this, before, for decades.
“Our job is to expand what we do in low Earth orbit around the world,” said NASA 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’s a very, very exciting day,” said Matt Ondler of Axiom.