SpaceX mission brings former NASA astronauts, 3 paying customers dock with the space station

A SpaceX capsule carrying a former NASA astronaut and three paying customers connected with the International Space Station on Monday, starting a historic week-long mission for the crew.

After launching from Florida on Sunday afternoon, the crew spent about 16 hours aboard their Crew Dragon spacecraft as it maneuvered toward the space station, which orbits about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

The spacecraft officially docked with the space station at 9:12 a.m. ET.

The mission, called AX-2, was put together by the Houston-based companyAxiom space and marked the second private mission to the orbiting outpost, meaning it was undertaken by a commercial corporation rather than a government.

It also made history as stem cell researcher Rayyanah Barnawi became the first woman from Saudi Arabia to travel to outer space.

The AX-2 mission is one in a series of missions designed to encourage private sector participation in space flight – particularly in low Earth orbit, where the space station is located.

Meet the AX-2 crew

The AX-2 crew is led by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, 63, now an Axiom employee. With this mission, Whitson also became the first woman to command a private space flight.

“I am very excited to be back in space, but even more excited to welcome the three new astronauts,” Whitson said in an interview assign from the Crew Dragon spaceship after launch.

One of the three paying customers who joined Whitson was John Shoffner, an American who made his fortune in the international telecommunications business and founded hardware company Dura-Line Corp.

Saudi Arabia also paid to fly two nationals: Barnawi and Ali AlQarni, a fighter pilot in the Saudi Royal Air Force.

“I am very honored and happy to be able to represent all the dreams and all the hopes of everyone in Saudi Arabia and all the women in my homeland,” Barnawinotifiedjournalist last week.

The hatch on the Crew Dragon spaceship is expected to open after 11​am ET. After that, the AX-2 crew will be able to exit the 13-foot-wide capsule and join forces seven astronautsalready on the space station.

AX-2 passengers will spend approximately eight days working with existing crew members. During that time, they will work on more than 20 science investigations and projects – including stem cells and othersbiomedical research.

This marked Whitson's return to space for the first time since 2017. His extensive experience previously on the station made him the US record holder for the most cumulative days in space, and he ranks eighth on the all-time list.

Whitson has flown Russian Soyuz spacecraft as well as NASA's space shuttle, but she said preparing for this mission was “obviously different” because it involved training to operate SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which has only been flying astronauts since 2020.

“One of the biggest challenges for me was learning about this particular spacecraft,” he said. “But I really enjoyed it.”

Barnawi and AlQarni are only the second and third Saudis to travel to outer space. The first isPrince Sultan bin Salmanwho spent about a week on a NASA space shuttle mission in 1985.

Saudi Arabia has faced abarrage of criticismof the Biden administration and Congress for its human rights record, despite the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabiastay strong.

AlQarni said he believes the participation of Arabs in space flights is a “great opportunity” that can inspire the region.

It would “keep a big message. … We are holding hands, we are working together for the betterment of humanity and just trying to innovate,” he said at a news briefing last week.

The future of personal spaceflight

This isn't the first time people have traveled to outer space. A company called Space Adventuresmediatedseveral similar missions to the space station in the early 2000s, booking rides for wealthy thrill-seekers aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Axiom is bringing that business model to the United States, partnering with SpaceX to build a framework for getting multiple customers to the space station. The company's first mission, AX-1, launched in April 2022 andbe markedthe first time citizens traveled to the space station from US soil.

Axiom's goal was to make these missions routine, offering more opportunities for people who are not professional astronauts to experience spaceflight. During a prelaunch press conference, Derek Hassmann, head of mission integration and operations at Axiom Space, said his company expects to see more government-sponsored customers similar to AX-2 passengers from Saudi Arabia.

“Government astronauts are indeed an important part of our business plan,” he said. “Early on in the program… it wasn't clear to us what the balance between private individuals and government astronauts was because nothing like this had ever been done before. But it became clear to us that government… the market is key, and we are actively pursuing it.”

The axiom leadership envisioned private spaceflight would continue even after the space station was discontinued, which NASA anticipatedhappen in 2030. Axiom isOnefrom several UScompany shot tocreate a new, privately owned space station. This is a NASA-backed effort, which aims to increase private sector participation closer to home so the agency can focus on investing in space exploration.

The AX-2 crew will work alongside professional astronauts on the space station, although they will operate on different schedules. Once aboard, they would rely on the crew on hand to show them the ropes, including the kitchen and bathroom. And certain areas will remain off-limits, such as the airlocks astronauts use to walk in space, according to Hassmann.

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