A Saudi Arabian woman will reach space for the first time next year, if all goes according to plan.
The nation announced today (Sept. 22) that it has started an astronaut program and intends to send two of its citizens to space — at least one of them a woman — as early as 2023. That mission will be organized by Houston-based company Axiom Space.
"Space belongs to all of humanity, which is one of the reasons Axiom Space is pleased to welcome our new partnership with the Saudi Space Commission to train and fly Saudi astronauts, including the first female Saudi astronaut," Axiom Space President and CEO Michael Suffredini said in a statement.
A Saudi man has already made it to orbit: The prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud flew on the STS-51-G mission of the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. Women have traditionally had fewer rights in Saudi Arabia than they enjoy in the United States and many other nations; Saudi women were forbidden to drive cars until 2018, for example.
Axiom has already flown one private crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS). That flight, called Ax-1, carried three paying customers and Axiom employee (and former NASA astronaut) Michael López-Alegría to and from the orbiting lab aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. Axiom is gearing up for another ISS mission, called Ax-2, which is expected to launch next spring.
Presumably, the coming Saudi flight will be similar, employing SpaceX hardware to get to the ISS. But Axiom's statement did not lay out such details.
Axiom has ambitions beyond shuttling people to and from the orbiting lab. For instance, the company plans to begin launching modules to the ISS in 2024. A few years later, this hardware will detach and become a free-flying commercial space station, which Axiom will operate.
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 on Facebook.
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com 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.