The SpaceX mission begins with a former NASA astronaut and three paying customers

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A SpaceX rocket lifted off Sunday afternoon from Florida aboard a decorated former NASA astronaut and three paying customers. The crew spent a week on the International Space Station.

Their mission, put together by Houston-based Axiom Space, marks the second all-private mission to the orbital outpost. The mission, called AX-2, will make history as stem cell researcher Rayana Barnawi, from Saudi Arabia, becomes the first woman in space.

Crews boarded a SpaceX rocket Sunday afternoon as weather officials closely monitored thunderstorms. As Florida enters its summer wet season, finding beautiful conditions for rocket launches can be a bit of a challenge.

However, weather officials eventually gave the all-clear for launch, though SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket roared to life, sending the Crew Dragon capsule and its four passengers into orbit.

The team is expected to spend the next 16 hours aboard Crew Dragon as it flies freely into Earth orbit, making careful maneuvers to dock with the International Space Station. The spacecraft should dock with the orbiting lab at 9:24 a.m. Monday.

The AX-2 mission is one of a series of missions that Axiom Space and NASA hope will continue to encourage private sector participation in spaceflight — especially in low Earth orbit, where the space station is located.

The AX-2 team is led by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, 63, now an Axiom employee. With this mission, Whitson became the first woman to command a private spacecraft.

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One of the three paying clients she joins is John Shofner, an American who made his fortune in the international telecommunications business and founded the hardware company Dura-Line Corp.

Saudi Arabia sent two citizens to fly: Barnawi and Ali Alkarni, a fighter pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force.

“I am very proud and happy to represent the dreams and all the hopes of all the people in Saudi Arabia and all the women back home,” Barnawi said. said Reporters last week.

After the Crew Dragon capsule docks early Monday, the AX-2 crew will join seven astronauts already on the space station.

AX-2 passengers will work with existing crew members for about eight days. During that time, they will work through an array of more than 20 investigations and scientific projects, including stem cell and others. Biomedical research.

This marks Whitson’s first return to space since 2017. His extensive experience on the station made him the American record holder for most days logged in space, and he ranks eighth on the all-time list.

Whitson has flown on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and NASA’s space shuttle, but preparation for this mission was “obviously different,” as it included training to fly SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which will fly only astronauts from 2020, he said.

“One of the biggest challenges for me was learning this particular spacecraft,” he said. “But I really enjoyed it.”

Barnawi and Alkarni are the second and third Saudis to travel into space. The first was Prince Sultan bin SalmanIn 1985, he spent about a week on the NASA space shuttle.

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Although relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia remain strong, Saudi Arabia has faced a barrage of criticism from the Biden administration and Congress over its human rights record.

Alkarni said he believes Arab participation in space travel is a “great opportunity” to promote the region.

It holds a great message. … We are holding hands, we are working together for the betterment of humanity, and we are trying to innovate,” he said during a news conference last week.

This is not the first time that individuals have gone into space. A company called Space Adventures brokered several such trips to the space station in the early 2000s, booking rides aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for wealthy thrill-seekers.

Axiom brought that business model to the U.S., partnering with SpaceX to build a framework for getting a line of customers to the space station. The company’s first mission, AX-1, launched in April 2022 and was the first time a private civilian space station traveled from US soil.

Axiom’s goal is to make these journeys routine by giving non-professional astronauts more opportunities to experience space travel. During a preview news conference, Derek Hassmann, Axiom Space’s head of mission coordination and operations, said his company expects more government-sponsored customers like the AX-2 passengers from Saudi Arabia.

“Government astronauts are really a key part of our business plan,” he said. “At the beginning of the project … because nothing like this had been done before, we weren’t clear what the balance would be between private individuals and government astronauts. But the government … it became clear to us that the market is important, and we’re pursuing it aggressively.”

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Axiom leadership envisions private spaceflight continuing after the retirement of the space station, which NASA expects to happen in the 2030s. One Many U.S Companies are gunning for it Build a new, privately owned space station. It’s a NASA-backed initiative that aims to promote private sector participation closer to home so the agency can focus on investing in deep space exploration.

The AX-2 crew will work alongside professional astronauts on the space station, although they will operate under different schedules. Once aboard, they’ll rely on existing crew to show them the ropes, including the kitchen and bathroom. According to Hausmann, some areas, such as the airlock used by astronauts to conduct spacewalks, will be off-limits.

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