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SpaceX launches Saudi astronauts, including country’s first woman, to space station

Axiom Mission 2 (X-2) aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule, carrying 4 crew members to the International Space Station, lifts off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, US May 21, 2023.

Joe Skipper | reuters

Saudi Arabia’s first astronauts in decades took off on a chartered multimillion-dollar flight to the International Space Station on Sunday.

SpaceX launched a ticket-holding crew, led by a retired NASA astronaut who now works for the travel-arrangement company. Also on board: an American businessman who now owns a sports car racing team.

The four should reach the space station in their capsule on Monday morning; They’ll spend more than a week there before returning home with a splash down the Florida coast.

Sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government, Raynah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher, became the kingdom’s first woman in space. She was joined by Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot of the Royal Saudi Air Force.

He is the first person to ride a rocket from his country since a Saudi prince launched on the shuttle Discovery in 1985. In a jiffy, he will be greeted at the station by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates.

“It’s a dream come true for everyone,” Barnawi said before the flight. “Just being able to understand that it’s possible. If me and Ali can do it, they can do it too.”

Surrounding the arriving crew: John Shoffner of Knoxville, Tennessee, former driver and owner of a sports car racing team that competes in Europe, and Peggy Whitson, the station’s first female commander, who holds the record for the most accumulated time in space in the U.S. Records held: 665 days and counting.

“It was a phenomenal ride,” Whitson said after reaching orbit. His companions clapped happily.

This is the second private flight to the space station organized by Houston-based Axiom Space. The first was done last year by three businessmen, along with another retired NASA astronaut. The company plans to start adding rooms of its own to the station over the next few years, eventually removing them to create stand-alone outposts available for rent.

Axiom would not say how much Shoffner and Saudi Arabia are paying for the planned 10-day mission. The company previously estimated the cost of each ticket at $55 million.

NASA’s latest price list shows charges per person, up to $2,000 per day for food and up to $1,500 for sleeping bags and other gear. Need to get your stuff to the space station in advance? The picture costs about $10,000 per pound ($20,000 per kilogram), with a similar fee for trashing it afterwards. Want to get your items back intact? double the price.

At least the email and video link are free.

Guests will have access to most of the station as they conduct experiments, photograph Earth and chat with school children back home, demonstrating how kites fly into space when attached to a fan.

After decades of astonishing space tourism, NASA is now embracing it with two private missions a year. The Russian space agency has been doing it off and on for decades.

“Our job is to expand what we do in low-Earth orbit around the world,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station program manager.

SpaceX’s first stage booster landed back at Cape Canaveral eight minutes after liftoff, to be recycled for a future flight.

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