Peggy Whitson, America’s most experienced astronaut with 665 days in space and 10 spacewalks three times aboard the International Space Station, is poised to build on her legacy as one of the consensus “GOATs” of America’s all-time — greatest — space program.
With Ph.D. in biochemistry and two terms as commander of the space station, Whitson, former head of NASA’s astronaut corps, last flew in space in 2017 289 days of station flights. He never expected to fly into space again.
But after retiring from NASA and joining Houston-based Axiom Space as director of human spaceflight, Whitson, now 63, is ready to blow it up. The fourth flight is on SundayThis time as commander of the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Freedom.”
He will be joined by retired businessman, race car driver and adventurer John Schaffner, serving as co-pilot, and two Saudi Arabian astronauts: F-16 fighter pilot Ali Alkarni and biomedical researcher Raynah Barnawi.
“I wanted to be able to fly in space again,” Whitson said in an interview with CBS News, “but the realistic part of Peggy said, no, you’re not going to be able to. And so, it’s just a thrill. And half of Axiom has this opportunity to fly. “
This is the second “personal astronaut mission” or PAM to the International Space Station chartered by Axiom and authorized by NASA, which is trying to encourage private-sector development in low-Earth orbit.
Neither SpaceX nor Axiom would say how much the flight cost or how much Shoffner and the Saudi government chipped in for Alkarni and Barnawi. But the seats are expected to cost more than $50 million each.
Regardless, Alkarni and Barnawi will be the second and third Saudis since Sultan Salman Al-Saud flew into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. First Saudi woman to fly in space.
“Research has been my life’s passion,” he said at a pre-launch press conference. “I am very happy and honored to be here today to represent the Government of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Space Commission as the first Saudi female astronaut to go to the International Space Station.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to represent the country, to represent their dream. … It’s a dream come true for everyone.”
Liftoff aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is planned for 5:37 pm EST Sunday with a backup launch opportunity Monday at 5:14 pm. This will be the 10th piloted flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the California rocket maker’s third private mission and the second chartered by Axiom Space.
But like many afternoon launches this time of year, weather could be a factor with a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions on Sunday dropping to just a 20 percent “go” on Monday due to expected thunderstorms.
The Ax-2 crew has only two shots at landing in May. If weather or other issues keep them on the ground past Monday, the flight could slip into the late-summer-fall timeframe because of other already-planned launches, multiple spacewalks and the first powered flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule in July.
“The schedule is really tight with all the missions launching from different parts of the world,” said Ken Bowersox, NASA’s director of space operations. “And finding that two-day window for the (Ax-2) mission was a real challenge for the team.”
Assuming an on-time launch Sunday, Whitson and Shoffner will observe an automated rendezvous with the space station, proceeding to dock at the Harmony Module’s space-facing port at 9:24 a.m. Monday. For a day-late launch on Monday, docking is expected around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday
When they arrive, they will be greeted at the station by Expedition 69 commander Sergei Prokopiev and his two Soyuz MS-23 crewmates, Dmitri Petlin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, along with NASA Crew 6 flyer Steve Bowen, Woody Hoberg, astronauts from the UAE. Alneyadi and cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev.
During the eight-day stay, Whitson, Shoffner, Alkarni and Barnawi plan to conduct 20 research projects, including 14 developed by Saudi scientists, ranging from human physiology and cell biology to technology development. Equally important, if not more so: public outreach.
“This is a huge, huge event in Saudi Arabia,” said Derek Hasman, chief of mission integration and operations. “While they dock at the ISS, a whole series of media events are scheduled.
“A focal point of many of these events is interacting with school-age children in Saudi Arabia. And that’s one of the reasons, just during the school year, that we’re so excited to get this flight done in May. They’ve also planned a whole series of post-flight events.”
“We’re here as STEM educators to get kids (attracted) to math and science, technology, so they can do more,” Barnavi said.
Alkarni added: “We’re going to do three learning and awareness experiments with kids and it’s going to be a live event, which is going to be amazing for them. It’s going to be a huge opportunity to compare their results with the one we’re going to board on the ISS.” was on the ground.”
One such student experiment: building a kite and comparing how one flies on the station in the absence of gravity with how the student-made kite flies on Earth.
Doing everything in the titularly-scripted eight-day mission will be a challenge. But the rookies have one of the world’s most experienced astronauts as their guide, and Whitson does his best to prepare them for the challenges of living and working in space.
“We shared a long long list of reasons behind what we’re going to do, what we’re not going to do, how we’re going to do things,” he said. “Because there are so many lessons learned after 665 days in space, I’ve got a lesson or two that I’ve probably learned the hard way.
“I’m trying to save them some time because our mission is relatively short. So we want to make sure we get the most out of each of those days.”
While the Ax-2 crew is on the station, the only off-limits area to rookie visitors is the Quest airlock where the delicate spacewalk hardware is housed. At the invitation of the cosmonauts, they can visit the Russian part for free and are trained to operate basic equipment without supervision.
“For the galley and the potty, both essential functions, obviously, they’ve received a great deal of training,” says Hassman. “But in orbit, once they get to the ISS, the first time they use each of these things, the first time they prepare their food in the galley, the first time they use the toilet, they’re going to get a (briefing) from the ISS crew.”
And they will be able to show their gratitude. Alkarni said he was bringing Saudi coffee and dates to share with the station crew.
Assuming they launch Sunday as planned, Whitson and his crewmates plan to undock from the space station on May 30 for a fiery plunge to Earth and a splashdown off the coast of Florida.
The Ax-2 flight is the second such private astronaut mission booked by Axiom, a company led by Mike Saffredini, NASA’s former space station program manager, and other public- and private-sector space veterans.
Axiom Space is developing a module that will be attached to the International Space Station in the next few years as a precursor to a stand-alone commercial space station.
Whitson’s X-2 mission, Like the Ax-1 flight in 2022 before thatIt is seen as an important step toward the company’s development of the space station, an orbital base that can be used by government and private astronauts and researchers alike after the International Space Station retires at the end of the decade.
“The Ax-2 mission represents continued progress that NASA and industry are making to build a strong commercial economy in low Earth orbit,” said Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development Program.
“The future we envision for low-Earth orbit builds on the lessons from the ISS with these private astronaut missions and moves us closer to our goal of having government and private astronauts working side-by-side on future commercially owned and operated space stations.”
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