SpaceX to launch 1st Saudi woman to space on private Ax-2 mission

Members of Axiom SpaceX's Ax-2 mission to the International Space Station, from left to right: Commander Peggy Whitson, Pilot John Shoffner, and Mission Specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi.
Members of Axiom SpaceX's Ax-2 mission to the International Space Station, from left to right: Commander Peggy Whitson, Pilot John Shoffner, and Mission Specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi. (Image credit: Axiom Space)

A Saudi Arabian woman will reach space for the first time a few months from now, if all goes according to plan.

On Sunday (Feb. 12), the Saudi government and Houston-based company Axiom Space announced the final two members of the four-person Ax-2 mission to the International Space Station (ISS), which is scheduled to launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket no earlier than May.

Those two are Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali AlQarni, members of the inaugural Saudi astronaut class. They'll become the first Saudi Arabians to travel to the ISS and just the second and third people from the kingdom ever to reach space. And Barnawi will be the first Saudi woman to make it to the final frontier.

"Human spaceflight is a symbol of countries' superiority and global competitiveness in many fields such as technology, engineering, research and innovation," a Sunday press release from the state-run Saudi Press Agency reads. 

"This mission is also historic, as it will make the Kingdom one of the few countries in the world that brings two astronauts of the same nationality aboard the International Space Station simultaneously," it adds.

Related: Photos of the Ax-1 mission to the International Space Station

As its name suggests, Ax-2 will be the second mission to the ISS organized by Axiom Space. The first, Ax-1, sent three paying customers and Axiom's Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut, to the station for more than two weeks in April 2022 aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

Ax-2 will also use SpaceX hardware and will be led by a decorated former NASA spaceflyer — Peggy Whitson, who has spent more time in space (665 days) than any other woman or American and is now a consultant for Axiom.

The fourth crewmember is investor John Shoffner, a paying customer who will serve as Ax-2's pilot. Barnawi and Ali AlQarni will be mission specialists.

The inclusion of the Saudi duo is not a surprise; NASA and Axiom announced late last year that two of Ax-2's crewmembers would hail from the desert kingdom. But the spaceflyers' identities had remained a mystery until now. (NASA is involved with private astronaut missions such as Ax-2; the agency, and the other ISS partners, must approve crews that visit the orbiting lab.)

The only Saudi citizen to reach space to date is prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, who flew on the weeklong STS-51-G mission of the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. Al Saud was the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of a royal family to go to orbit.

Ax-2 will obviously be followed closely in Saudi Arabia, and Barnawi's inclusion makes the flight particularly meaningful. Women in the kingdom have historically enjoyed fewer rights than men; Saudi women weren't allowed to drive cars until 2018, for example.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.