SpaceX sends Saudi astronauts, including first Arab woman, to ISS


A private rocket carrying the first Arab woman astronaut has blasted off on a mission to the International Space Station. 

Rayyanah Barnawi, a breast cancer researcher from Saudi Arabia, was joined on Sunday’s mission by fellow Saudi Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot. 

The pair are the first Saudi astronauts to voyage into space in decades. 

They took off on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in the southern United States at 5:37pm local time. 

The team also includes Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who will be making her fourth flight to the ISS, and John Shoffner, a businessman from Tennessee who is serving as pilot. 

Sponsored by the Saudi government, Barnawi had said earlier that it was “a great pleasure and honour” to be the first Saudi woman astronaut to voyage into space. 

Aside from excitement for the research she will carry out on board, she said she was looking forward to sharing her experience with children while on the ISS. “Being able to see their faces when they see astronauts from their own region for the first time is very thrilling,” she said. 

A career fighter pilot, al-Qarni said he has “always had the passion of exploring the unknown and just admiring the sky and the stars”. 

“It is a great opportunity for me to pursue this kind of passion that I have, and now maybe just fly among the stars,” he said. 

The pair are the first from their country to ride a rocket since a Saudi prince travelled on board the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. In a quirk of timing, they will be greeted at the station by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates. 

The mission is the second private flight to the space station organised by Houston-based Axiom Space.