Rayyanah Barnawi intends to chart a course that many others will follow; she will be the first Saudi female astronaut in the history of humanity. The researcher is one of the four astronauts on the private mission Ax-2 to the International Space Station (ISS), scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday, May 21. On Monday morning, May 22, she and her Ax-2 crewmate, Ali Alqarni, will become the first Arab individuals to visit the orbiting laboratory.
Barnawi knows that people in her home country, especially women and girls, will closely follow the mission, and she embraces the responsibility and opportunity that come with such attention. “I am deeply honored and happy to represent all the dreams and hopes of all the people, especially women in Saudi Arabia” she said in the pre-launch press conference on Tuesday, May 16. “This is a great opportunity for me to represent the country, to represent their dreams”.
Ax-2 will be the second private mission to the ISS managed by Houston-based company Axiom Space using SpaceX hardware. The first mission, Ax-1, sent four individuals to the ISS for over two weeks in April 2022. Ax-2 will spend eight days docked to the orbiting laboratory.
The commander of Ax-2 is Peggy Whitson, who spent 665 days in space as a NASA astronaut and now flies for Axiom. The fourth member of the crew is John Soffner, an investor and paying customer who will serve as the Ax-2 pilot. Alqarni and Barnawi, members of Saudi Arabia’s first class of astronauts, will be mission specialists.
The quartet will conduct over 20 scientific experiments during their stay on the ISS, many of which focus on human health and physiology. Barnawi, a biomedical researcher with nearly a decade of experience in cancer stem cell research, will be heavily involved in these experiments.
“During the Ax-2 mission, Barnawi will focus her attention on stem cell and breast cancer research” wrote Axiom Space in a short astronaut biography. The Ax-2 crew will also dedicate a significant amount of time to outreach and education, particularly engaging in activities designed to inspire children in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
“We are very excited about the part that will involve children from all over Saudi Arabia and the world, talking about our experiments, talking about space, and sparking their curiosity about space” she said in the press conference.
The first Saudi female astronaut hopes that this enthusiasm will help nurture a new generation of fellow countrymen eager to explore the final frontier. “To see people from their own nation going to the ISS with the great commander Peggy and international partners is a big thing. And if Ali and I can do it, then they can do it too”.