The second all-private International Space Station mission now has a complete crew assigned, according to a report.
NASA and Houston-based company Axiom Space have confirmed two Saudi astronauts will join the SpaceX mission, according to SpaceNews (opens in new tab). Ax-2 will send four people to the International Space Station. The mission builds on the first-ever private effort, Ax-1, that launched and landed in April.
The names of the two Saudis on the flight are not public knowledge, said Angela Hart, manager of NASA's commercial LEO development program, at a livestreamed event. "We are working very hard with them on training already," Hart said at the NASA Advisory Council's human exploration and operations committee meeting Tuesday (Nov. 1).
Ax-2 already had two crew members on board: retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson in command, and John Shoffner (a racecar driver and airshow pilot), who paid for his seat as the pilot. The mission is targeted for a spring 2023 arrival at the ISS and will also open the curtain on the burgeoning Saudi astronaut program.
It was only six weeks ago that Saudi Arabia announced that it has started an astronaut program and planned to send two people to space, including at least one woman. The Sept. 22 announcement did say Axiom Space would be the pathway to orbit for the unnamed spaceflyers, but didn't specify the timing; NASA had said at the time the future flyers were pending approval. That approval seems to be confirmed now that the Saudi astronauts are in training with the agency.
These won't be the first Saudi citizens in space, as already one man has achieved orbit: prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, who flew on the STS-51-G mission of the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. The inclusion of a woman is notable, as Saudi women tend to enjoy far fewer rights than their male counterparts; for example, Saudi women were forbidden to drive cars until 2018 (opens in new tab).
Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the NASA-led Artemis Accords, which aim to create a new framework for international space exploration while landing people and hardware on the moon starting in the 2020s. Axiom has a lunar connection, too, as it will build the moonwalking spacesuits for NASA's crewed Artemis 3 mission that will be the first to touch the surface in 2025 or 2026.
Ax-2's launch will see the four astronauts fly to orbit on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and use a Crew Dragon spacecraft, just like Ax-1. NASA plans to implement some new rules for forthcoming Axiom flights (the agency has already approved an Ax-3 and Ax-4) following some "lessons learned" on the debut mission, the first commercial astronaut one to visit the ISS.
Following some scheduling problems on Axiom's side that required NASA to provide a space station astronaut to complete Ax-1 work, the agency introduced requirements to have all Axiom missions led by a former agency astronaut. NASA will also approve science experiments earlier in the mission planning phase. (Ax-1, by coincidence, was led by Michael López-Alegría, who flew on three space shuttle missions and one ISS expedition as a NASA astronaut.)
SpaceX, the only vendor approved to fly humans to the space station pending certification of Boeing's Starliner, has already sent five operational NASA astronaut missions to the International Space Station. The latest, Crew-5, arrived in early October.
The company received $1.4 billion to conduct five additional astronaut missions to the orbiting lab earlier this year, which will bring its NASA astronaut commitments through Crew-14.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).