The four crewmembers of the second-ever private astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS) are eager to leave their home planet behind, at least for a little while.
That mission, known as Ax-2, is scheduled to launch toward the ISS atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday afternoon (May 21) — and the four astronauts who will fly it are counting down the days.
"To say I'm excited to be here would be a gross understatement," Ax-2 pilot John Shoffner said during a press conference on Tuesday (May 16).
"I feel like I've been preparing for this my entire life," Shoffner added. "I've been a fan of space since I was a child — I grew up in the age of the early space race — so getting here now and having a chance to fulfill that excitement is very, very powerful to me."
Related: SpaceX to launch 1st Saudi woman to space on private Ax-2 mission
Shoffner is a paying customer on Ax-2, which will be the second flight to the orbiting lab organized by Houston-based company Axiom Space. The first, the pioneering Ax-1, launched and landed in April 2022.
Ax-2 will be commanded by Peggy Whitson, a record-breaking former NASA astronaut who now flies for Axiom Space. The other two crewmates are Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, mission specialists who are members of Saudi Arabia's first astronaut class.
Alqarni and Barnawi will become the first Saudis ever to visit the ISS, and Barnawi will be the first woman from the kingdom to reach space. (The first, and so far only, Saudi to make it to the final frontier was Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, who flew on the STS-51-G mission of the space shuttle Discovery in 1985.)
"We are really honored and privileged to have you guys and to be part of this amazing mission," Alqarni said during Tuesday's press conference.
He and Barnawi, Alqarni added, "are really thrilled and excited for our mission and to represent Saudi Arabia on this journey."
If all goes according to plan, that journey will take the Ax-2 quartet to the ISS in a SpaceX Dragon capsule. The Dragon will dock on Monday morning (May 22) and spend eight days attached to the orbiting lab before returning home for an ocean splashdown.
The four Ax-2 crewmembers will spend their time in orbit conducting more than 20 different scientific experiments, including one that will grow stem cells in microgravity.
They'll also do a variety of educational and outreach work, especially activities designed to spark a love of science, technology, engineering and math in students around the world.
"We're very excited for the part that will be engaging with kids from all over Saudi Arabia and all over the world, talking about our experiments, talking about space and having them trigger their curiosity towards space," Barnawi said.
"I'm sure that we're gonna enjoy this mission," she added. "We're almost five days away, so our excitement is above the limits!"