Excitement builds for Ax-2 SpaceX launch that will send 1st Saudi woman to space

The Ax-2 crew in the launch access arm at the NASA Kennedy Space Center, at the launch pad. From left: mission specialist Ali Alqarni, commander Peggy Whitson, pilot John Shoffner and mission specialist Rayyanah Barnawi.
The Ax-2 crew in the launch access arm at the NASA Kennedy Space Center, at the launch pad. From left: mission specialist Ali Alqarni, commander Peggy Whitson, pilot John Shoffner and mission specialist Rayyanah Barnawi. (Image credit: Axiom Space)

Excitement is building for the launch of Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2), which will break new ground in terms of diversity in space exploration. 

The private mission, organized by Houston-based company Axiom Space, is set to launch at 5:37 p.m. EDT (2137 GMT) on Sunday (May 21) from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It will see biomedical researcher Rayyanah Barnawi become the first Saudi Arabian woman to journey to space

"I am very honored and happy to be representing all the dreams and all the hopes of all the people in Saudi Arabia and all the women back home in the region," said Barnawi at a press conference on Tuesday (May 16). "When I first told my grandmother that I was going to space, she gave me her 60-year-old earrings. So these are what I'm taking with me to space, along with the Saudi flag and some photos of my family."

Related: Saudi Arabia's 1st female astronaut hopes kids follow in her footsteps

The four-person Ax-2 crew includes another member of the inaugural Saudi astronaut class, Ali Alqarni.

Barnawi and Alqarni, a captain in the Royal Saudi Air Force, will be just the second and third Saudi Arabians to reach space — and the first Saudi nationals ever to reach the International Space Station (ISS). 

"Me and my crewmate Rayyanah Barnawi are really thrilled and excited for our mission and to represent Saudi Arabia on this journey," Alqarni said during the May 16 event.

Alqarni added that he will also be introducing a little taste of Saudi Arabia to the ISS, in the form of locally produced coffee and dates for the astronauts currently at the space station.

In addition to these important milestones for the Saudi space endeavor, Ax-2 will achieve a number of other firsts for space exploration and private space ventures. The mission will be commanded by record-breaking former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who will become the first woman to command a private orbital spaceflight.

"We really feel like we're prepared to go. We have a few more objectives to meet in the next few days," Whitson, who has spent more total time in space (665 days) than any other woman or American, said in the May 16 press conference. "But we are so excited to get to space."

Related: Pioneering women in space: A gallery of astronaut firsts

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule that will fly the Ax-2 mission to the International Space Station stand on the pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center ahead of their planned May 21, 2023 launch. (Image credit: SpaceX via Twitter)

Rounding out the four-person Ax-2 crew, who will journey to the ISS in a SpaceX Dragon crew capsule, is paying customer John Shoffner, who will serve as the mission's pilot. He is just as excited to get to space, and to arrive at the ISS on Monday morning (May 22), as his crewmates are. 

"I feel like I've been preparing for this my entire life. I've been a fan of space since I was a child," Shoffner said at the press conference. "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, and it gives me a chance to demonstrate what I believe is the opportunity of space for everyone."

This will be the second crewed flight to the ISS conducted by Axiom Space. The first, Ax-1, sent a four-person crew to the space station for just over two weeks in April 2022. 

The Ax-2 astronauts will perform more than 20 scientific experiments during the mission, 14 of which will be led by Saudi scientists, according to Barnawi.

These experiments will range from studying the potential of cloud seeding  —  the creation of rain, which could be vital for regions like Saudi Arabia, which are dominated by desert  —  to testing the effects of spaceflight on the human body to investigating cell biology. 

This later category of experiments will include growing stem cells and allowing them to differentiate in space. This will allow the team to investigate the effect of microgravity on stem cells, which can develop into the three primary groups of cells that make up the tissues of the body.

The Ax-2 crew will also conduct a number of outreach activities, aiming to inspire young people back on Earth.

"One of the goals for this mission, at least for me and Ali and John and Peggy, is to do these outreach events for the kids and to elaborate on the fact we are here as STEM educators," Barnawi said, referring to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. "I think all of us will enjoy that part of the mission."

Some of the experiments will be conducted in live events, allowing students here on Earth to carry out the tests at the same time and then compare their results to those obtained on the ISS. These tests will help demonstrate the effects of things like aerodynamics and microgravity.

Barnawi also told the press about the moment the importance and significance of her journey into space became clear to her. 

"I had the chance to go with the crew on an expeditionary trip, and I remember one night, we were supposed to wake up a little bit early to watch the ISS fly over," Barnawi said. "That was a moment that made me realize why I'm here and why I am representing those dreams. Space is full of exploration, and it's a dream that developed with me along this journey." 

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.