First Saudi astronauts to blast off in private mission to ISS

Rayyanah Barnawi, the first female Arab astronaut, is also on the mission.

Saudi astronauts Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al Qarni, with their crew Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner pose for a photo ahead of their mission to the ISS
Saudi astronauts Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali al-Qarni, with their crew Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner, pose for a photo before their mission to the ISS [Saudi Press Agency/Handout via Reuters]

Two Saudi astronauts will be travelling to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time on a private mission to carry out a number of experiments, the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.

Rayyanah Barnawi, the first female Arab astronaut and breast cancer researcher, and fighter pilot Ali al-Qarni are scheduled to blast off in a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in the US state of Florida on Sunday.

Arriving at the ISS on Monday, the duo will join Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut, and US pilot John Shoffner, on a mission organised by private space company Axiom Space.

“Being the first Saudi woman astronaut, representing the region, it’s a great pleasure and honour that I’m very happy to carry,” Barnawi told reporters at a recent news conference.

For al-Qarni, the mission is also a passion long realised.

“It is a great opportunity for me to pursue this kind of passion that I have, and now … fly among the stars,” he said.

According to SPA, 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, according to SPA.

Barnawi said she is looking forward to sharing her experience with Saudi youth.

“Being able to see their faces when they see astronauts from their own region for the first time is very thrilling,” she said.

The mission is a part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, a reform programme that hopes to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and create jobs for young Saudis.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia created the Saudi Space Commission and last year launched a programme to send astronauts into space.

The Kingdom’s history in space extends back to 1985, when Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, an air force pilot, took part in a US-organised space voyage.

The region has been making innovations in the sector in recent years.

In 2019, Hazzaa al-Mansoori from the UAE became the first Arab to reach the ISS. Last month, UAE astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi became the first Arab to undertake a spacewalk.

The ISS – a rare example of cooperation between Russia and the West – has been orbiting Earth at about 28,000km (17,400 miles) per hour since 1998.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies