SpaceX will send 2 Saudi astronauts to the space station on a private mission

The International Space Station’s second fully private mission is now fully crewed, according to a report.

NASA and Houston-based company Axiom Space have confirmed that two Saudi astronauts will join the SpaceX mission, according to SpaceNews (opens in a new tab). Ax-2 will send four people to the International Space Station. The mission builds on the first-ever private effort, Ax-1, launched and landed in April.

The names of the two Saudis on the flight are not publicly known, Angela Hart, NASA’s LEO Commercial Development Program Manager, said during a livestreamed event. “We’re already working very hard with them on training,” Hart said at the NASA Advisory Board’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee meeting on Tuesday (November 1).

Ax-2 already had two crew members on board: retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson at the controls and John Shoffner (race car driver and air show pilot), who paid for his pilot seat. The mission is scheduled for a spring 2023 arrival at the ISS and will also open the curtain on the fledgling Saudi astronaut program.

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

Just six weeks ago, Saudi Arabia announced that it had launched an astronaut program and planned to send two people into space, including at least one woman. The September 22 announcement said Axiom Space would be the route to orbit for unnamed astronauts, but did not specify when; NASA said at the time that future flyers were pending approval. That approval appears to be confirmed now that Saudi astronauts are in training with the agency.

They will not be the first Saudi citizens in space, because already a man has reached orbit: Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, who participated in the STS-51-G mission of the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. The inclusion of a woman is notable, as Saudi women tend to enjoy far fewer rights than their male counterparts; for example, Saudi women were banned from driving cars until 2018 (opens in a new tab).

Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the NASA-led Artemis Accords, which aim to create a new framework for international space exploration while landing people and equipment on the moon from the 2020s. Axiom also has a connection lunar, as it will build the moonwalking spacesuits for NASA’s Artemis 3 crewed mission which will be the first to hit the surface in 2025 or 2026.

Related: NASA plans second human moon landing on Artemis 4 after all: report

The launch of Ax-2 will see the four astronauts fly into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and use a Crew Dragon spacecraft, just like Ax-1. NASA plans to implement new rules for upcoming Axiom flights (the agency has already approved an Ax-3 and an Ax-4) following some “lessons learned” on the first mission, the first commercial astronaut to visit the ISS.

Following some planning issues on the Axiom side that required NASA to provide an astronaut from the space station to complete work on Ax-1, the agency introduced requirements that all Axiom missions be led by a former astronaut from the agency. NASA will also approve science experiments earlier in the mission planning phase. (Ax-1, coincidentally, was led by Michael López-Alegría, who served on three space shuttle missions and an ISS expedition as a NASA astronaut.)

SpaceX, the only supplier authorized to transport humans to the space station pending certification of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus, has already sent five operational missions of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The latest, Crew-5, arrived in early October.

The company received $1.4 billion to fly five additional astronaut missions to the orbiting lab earlier this year, which will bring its NASA astronaut engagements through Crew-14.

Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).

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