A legendary astronaut, two Saudis and a wealthy adventurer blasted off Sunday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for a trip to the International Space Station, the second “personal astronaut mission” aimed at opening the high frontier to commercial development.
The Falcon 9’s nine Marlin first-stage engines roared to life at 5:37 EDT, quickly throttling up to 1.2 million pounds of thrust and smoothly pushing the rocket away from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.
Moving away on a northeasterly trajectory, the narrow rocket put on a spectacular weekend sky show, thrilling thousands of area residents and tourists lining nearby streets and beaches.
Monitoring the automatic ascent from their seats in the Crew Dragon “Freedom” capsule were commander Peggy Whitson and co-pilot John Shoffner, first-time Saudi flyer Ali Alkarni, an experienced F-16 fighter pilot, and biomedical researcher Raynah Barnawi.
Whitson, now retired from NASA, is America’s most experienced astronaut, with 665 days in space and 10 spacewalks on three previous missions. Shoffner, a retired fiber optics entrepreneur, is a veteran private pilot, high-performance race car driver and skydiver.
Shoffner paid Axiom an undisclosed sum for its seats on Crew Dragon while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia covered the cost of its two astronauts. Whitson, now director of human spaceflight for Axiom Space, flew as part of the company’s charter.
“I wanted to be able to fly in space again,” Whitson said after her final NASA mission, “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 for this opportunity to fly for Axiom. “
After extracting the rocket from the dense lower atmosphere, the flight plan called for the reusable first stage to jettison and land at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station while the Falcon 9’s second stage continued to push into orbit.
In past Crew Dragon flights, booster stages were landed on offshore barges and brought back to shore for refurbishment and reuse. But past experience showed that actual performance was better than expected, leaving enough propellant on board to reverse course and return to the launch site.
The Crew Dragon capsule was expected to reach orbit one minute after the first stage touchdown—nine minutes after liftoff.
If all goes well, the crew will perform an automatic rendezvous observation with the space station, rendezvous with the lab complex Monday morning and proceed at 9:16 a.m. for docking with the space-facing port of the Forward Harmony module.
They will be greeted by Expedition 69 Commander Sergei Prokopiev and his two Soyuz MS-23 crewmates, Dmitry Petlin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, along with NASA Crew 6 Flyers Steve Bowen, Woody Hoberg, astronaut Andrey Fedyaev and a United SS. Alneyadi
Alneyadi, the second UAE astronaut to reach space, is the first Arab astronaut to serve as a long-term crew member on the ISS. With the arrival of Alkarni and Barnavi, three of the station’s 11 crew members will represent the Middle East.
“I think it’s a great opportunity that the three of us can get on the International Space Station,” Alkarni said. “(It) will contain a big message that we can send to inspire people. And it means for us, as the Arab world, that we are holding hands, we are working together for the betterment of humanity.”
The Ax-2 flight is the second Personal Astronaut Mission, or PAM, to the International Space Station chartered by Axiom. NASA plans to authorize up to two PAM missions per year to encourage private-sector development in low-Earth orbit.
Axiom Space is using the missions to gain the skills needed to begin building a stand-alone commercial space station that public and private sector astronauts and researchers can use after the International Space Station retires at the end of the decade.
In the near term, the missions provide a way for serious, technically competent private citizens and governments without access to space to visit the ISS for research and public outreach — goals encouraged by NASA.
Alkarni and Barnawi are the second and third Saudis to fly into space after Sultan Salman al-Saud aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. They will be the first Saudis to visit the space station and Barnavi will become the first Saudi woman. place
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, cell biology and technology development.
“Research has been my life’s passion,” Bernavi said at a pre-launch press conference. “It’s a great opportunity for me to represent the country, to represent their dream. … It’s a dream come true for everyone.”
With a full slate of experiments, the crew will participate in live broadcasts to school children across Saudi Arabia as part of a STEM initiative to create interest in science and technology.
“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.
Whitson and his crewmates plan to undock from the station on May 30. After returning to the lower atmosphere, the Crew Dragon will parachute down to splashdown on the Florida coast where SpaceX recovery crews will be standing by.
“I am proud to be returning to the ISS for the fourth time, leading this talented Ax-2 crew on their first mission,” Whitson said in the Axiom statement. “This is a strong and cohesive team determined to conduct meaningful scientific research in space and inspire a new generation about the benefits of microgravity.”
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