A woman from Saudi Arabia will reach space for the first time in a few months, if all goes according to plan.
On Sunday (February 12), the Saudi government and Houston-based company Axiom Space announced (opens in new tab) 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 class of Saudi astronauts. They will become the first Saudis to travel to the ISS and only the second and third people from the kingdom to reach space. And Barnawi will be the first Saudi woman to reach 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 (opens in new tab) by the state news agency Saudi Press.
“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 on board the International Space Station simultaneously”, he adds.
Related: Photos from 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 Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut, from Axiom to the station for more than two weeks in April 2022 aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
The Ax-2 will also use SpaceX hardware and will be led by a former decorated NASA astronaut – Peggy Whitson, who has spent more time in space (665 days) than any other woman or American and is now an advisor to Axiom.
The fourth crew member is investor John Shoffner, a paying customer who will pilot the Ax-2. Barnawi and Ali AlQarni will be the mission specialists.
The inclusion of the Saudi duo is not a surprise; NASA and Axiom announced late last year that two of the Ax-2 crew would come from the desert realm. But the astronauts’ identities have 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 teams visiting the lab in orbit.)
The only Saudi citizen to reach space to date is Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, who flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-51-G in 1985. Al Saud was the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of a royal family to go into orbit.
The Ax-2 will obviously be closely followed in Saudi Arabia, and Barnawi’s inclusion makes the flight particularly significant. Women in the kingdom historically enjoyed fewer rights than men; Saudi women couldn’t drive cars until 2018 (opens in new tab)for example.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).