SpaceX and Axiom Space teamed up today to send four spacefliers — including the first Saudi woman in orbit — to the International Space Station for a 10-day trip focusing on zero-gravity research.
SpaceX’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:37 p.m. ET (2:37 p.m. PT) at the end of a trouble-free countdown, sending a Crew Dragon capsule toward a space station rendezvous.
After stage separation, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster flew itself back to a landing zone near the launch pad while the second stage pushed the Crew Dragon into orbit. That marked the first time a Falcon 9 booster made a touchdown on land (as opposed to at sea) after launching a crewed mission.
“It was a phenomenal ride,” Axiom mission commander Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who holds the U.S. record for cumulative time in space, told Mission Control from zero-G.
The mission, which is Texas-based Axiom Space’s second expedition to the space station, combines public and private-sector initiatives: NASA, SpaceX and Axiom are coordinating operations in orbit. Mission pilot John Shoffner, a Tennessee business executive who’s also a race car driver and competitive skydiver, purchased one of the seats on the Crew Dragon at a cost that’s thought to be somewhere in the range of $55 million.
The Saudi government is paying the fare for the Ax-2 mission’s two other crew members: Rayyanah Barnawi, Saudi Arabia’s first female spaceflier, is a biochemist specializing in stem cell research. Ali Alqarni is a Saudi Air Force fighter pilot. Only one other Saudi citizen has previously been to space: Prince Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, who flew on the shuttle Discovery in 1985.
Barnawi’s background is well-suited for the research-centric mission. One of the more than 20 scientific experiments and technological demonstrations will make use of human stem cells cultivated by Seattle’s Allen Institute for Cell Science. That project, led by Cedars-Sinai, is aimed at finding out whether microgravity can aid in the mass production of pluripotent stem cells for therapeutic purposes.
Other experiments will focus on DNA-inspired therapeutics, tissue regeneration in zero-G, stem cell aging, cloud seeding in microgravity, tissue regeneration in zero-G and a host of other science frontiers. The crew will test a new type of “skinsuit” that could help future astronauts keep more fit in low-gravity environments.
Ax-2’s crew members are expected to hook up with the space station on Monday, meet up with the space station’s seven long-term residents, and then spend about a week on the orbital outpost. The mission will end with the Crew Dragon’s departure from the station and its descent to a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico.
Axiom Space has laid plans for at least two more short-duration missions to the space station in the next year or two. An Italian Air Force colonel is one of the scheduled spacefliers. Previous reports have suggested that a Turkish astronaut, Hollywood actor Tom Cruise and the winner of a “Space Hero” TV competition could also be on future crew lists.