SpaceX launches veteran NASA astronaut, Saudi astronauts to International Space Station

BREVARD COUNTY, Florida – SpaceX's Axiom-2 mission took off from Kennedy Space Center on Sunday night, carrying the second all-private crew of astronauts on a multimillion-dollar journey to the International Space Station.

The mission for Houston-based company Axiom Space – contracted with NASA – is expected to last 10 days. The SpaceX Dragon "Freedom" capsule is slated to dock with the station at 9:30 a.m. EDT Monday and remain there for eight days before returning back to Earth.

The crew of four is commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Axiom Space's director of human spaceflight. She is joined by private spaceflight participant and mission pilot John Shoffner and the first two Saudi Arabian government-sponsored astronauts, mission specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi.

Axiom Space did not release how much Shoffner and Saudi Arabia are paying for the planned 10-day mission but the company had previously cited a ticket price of $55 million each.

Before liftoff, Whitson gave a few remarks that recognized the hard work of not only launch teams, but the thousands of people that it takes to make a crewed launch happen.

"Today, we stand on the threshold of a remarkable journey thanks to your unwavering spirit to explore beyond our home planet and the endless possibility it enables. Thanks to the teams that make up our very big family Axiom Space, NASA, the international space partners, and SpaceX," Whitson said. "And with that, let's get to work and build some history together."

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Ticket-holding crew includes Saudi Arabia's first woman in space

Shoffner, the only paying customer on the flight, is a businessman, aviator, and STEM advocate who was born in Alaska and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. He fills the pilot seat for the private mission since he is a veteran aviator with 25 years and more than 8,500 hours of flying experience. 

Barnawi, the first female Saudi astronaut, is a breast cancer researcher. Alqarni is a captain and fighter pilot with 12 years of experience in the Royal Saudi Air Force. The pair are the first Saudi citizens to visit the space station.

Barnawi and Alqarni are the first from their country to ride a rocket since a Saudi prince launched aboard shuttle Discovery in 1985.

“This is a dream come true for everyone,” Barnawi said before the flight. “Just being able to understand that this is possible. If me and Ali can do it, then they can do it, too.”

While aboard the station, all four members are expected to participate in science, communication, and educational outreach projects before they return for a splashdown landing in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. The final splashdown zone selection will ultimately come down to weather conditions.

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The Axiom-2 astronauts blast off from Kennedy Space Center Sunday, May 21, 2023. This is the second all-private crewed mission to the International Space Station and is expected to last 10 days. Mandatory Credit: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK

Mission marks Axiom Space's second private flight to space station

Axiom-2 is part of a series of SpaceX's privately funded voyages to the International Space Station with Axiom Space.

"This mission is the second in our series of bold missions to the International Space Station," Michael Suffredini, Axiom Space president and CEO, said last month. "These are really steps for us and a process to get ready to build our space station."

Last year, the company launched its first mission with three businessmen and another retired NASA astronaut.

The third mission, Axiom-3, ordered with NASA, could launch as early as this fall. Beyond that, Axiom Space is planning to build its own free-flying space station in the coming years.

The first module of Axiom's station will launch and connect to the ISS late next year. That will be followed by another module and, eventually, a power and cooling system. The multi-module Axiom Station is planned to disengage to become a free-flying commercial destination in space before NASA retires the International Space Station in 2030.

"We'll be able to work efficiently with NASA and be able to work towards a seamless transition from the International Space Station to the Axiom Space station when the ISS is retired," Suffredini said.

The next SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket slated to launch from Florida will fly the BADR-8 communications satellite built by Airbus for telecommunications company Arabsat. That mission will target geostationary orbit with liftoff set for Tuesday at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. It will be the 26th launch from Florida this year.

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