Saudi, US astronauts splash down on return from space station

Saudi Arabia’s Rayyanah Barnawi, a biomedical scientist in cancer research, has become the first Arab woman sent into orbit.

In this image taken from video broadcast by SpaceX, crew members wave after the SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down into the Gulf of Mexico, just off the Florida Panhandle, late Tuesday, May 30, 2023. The private flight carrying two Saudi astronauts and other passengers returned to Earth after a nine-day trip to the International Space Station. (SpaceX via AP)
In this image taken from a video broadcast by SpaceX, crew members wave after the SpaceX Dragon capsule splashed down into the Gulf of Mexico on May 30, 2023 [SpaceX via AP]

A private space flight carrying a team of two Saudi and two American astronauts – including the first Arab woman sent into orbit – has splashed down safely in the Gulf of Mexico after a research mission on board the International Space Station (ISS).

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying the team parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, on Tuesday night after a 12-hour re-entry flight after 10 days in orbit.

The splashdown was carried live by a joint webcast presented by SpaceX and the company behind the mission, Axiom Space.

The return to Earth concluded the second space station mission organised, equipped and trained entirely at private expense by Axiom, a seven-year-old Houston-based venture headed by NASA’s former ISS programme manager.


The Axiom 2 crew was led by retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, 63, who holds the US record for most time spent in orbit with 665 days in space over three long-duration missions to the ISS, including 10 spacewalks. She now serves as Axiom’s director of human spaceflight.

“That was a phenomenal ride. We really enjoyed all of it,” Whitson radioed to mission controllers moments after splashdown.

Ax-2’s designated pilot was John Shoffner, 67, an aviator, race car driver and investor from Alaska.

Rounding out the crew as mission specialists were the first two astronauts from Saudi Arabia to fly on board a private spacecraft – Ali Alqarni, 31, a fighter pilot for the Royal Saudi Air Force; and Rayyanah Barnawi, 34, a biomedical scientist in cancer stem cell research.

Barnawi wiped away tears as she wrapped up her experiments and prepared to leave the space station.

“Every story comes to an end and this is only the beginning of a new era for our country and our region,” she said on Monday.

Barnawi is the first woman from the Arab world ever launched into Earth orbit and the first Saudi woman to fly in space.

In August 2022, Sara Sabry became the first Arab woman and the first Egyptian to fly to space on a brief suborbital ride operated by the Blue Origin astro-tourist venture of Jeff Bezos.

The ISS stay of Alqarni and Barnawi was also notable for overlapping with that of Sultan Alneyadi, an ISS Expedition-69 crew member from the United Arab Emirates, marking the first time three astronauts from the Arab world were on board the space station together.

The Axiom 2 mission, which launched on May 21, was the latest in a series of space expeditions bankrolled by private investment capital and wealthy passengers rather than by taxpayer funding as NASA seeks to expand commercial access to low-Earth orbit.

Axiom, which sent its first four-member astronaut team to ISS in April 2022, also has signed a contract with the US space agency to build the first commercial addition to the orbiting laboratory.

California-based SpaceX, founded by Twitter owner and Tesla electric carmaker CEO Elon Musk, supplied the Falcon 9 rocket and crew capsule that ferried Axiom’s team to and from orbit and controlled the flight.

NASA furnished the launch site at its Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and assumed responsibility for the Axiom crew during their stay on board the space station, orbiting some 400km (250 miles) above Earth.

Source: Reuters