CAPE CANAVERAL — About 16 hours after its launch, the Dragon spacecraft carrying the Saudi astronauts Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al Qarni successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) for an eight-day mission.

The duo made history as the first Saudi citizens to visit the orbiting outpost, while Barnawi has become the first Saudi and Arab woman in space and on the station. The Saudi Space Commission announced that the Ax-2 mission crew is preparing to enter the station shortly. Hundreds of thousands of Saudis followed the historic space voyage with immense pride and excitement.

A SpaceX capsule, carrying four astronauts, docked with the ISS as part of a private mission chartered by Axiom Space. “It was a lovely ride,” said mission commander Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who made the voyage three times in the past, adding: “It was the softest docking I’ve ever felt.” The fourth crew member is American businessman John Shoffner.

About two hours after docking, the capsule’s hatch will be opened to allow the four to enter the ISS, where they will join the seven astronauts already on board — three Russians, three Americans, and the UAE citizen Sultan Al-Neyadi.

The SpaceX rocket took off from Florida on Sunday, and the trip to the ISS, which flies around 400 kilometers above the earth, lasted about 16 hours. This mission, named Ax-2, is the second fully private mission to visit the Space Station, following a first in April 2022. The members of Ax-2 will stay about eight days and carry out about 20 experiments.

The astronauts blasted off from the rocket aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral in the US state of Florida on Sunday. The launch of the private mission voyage to the ISS was at 1:37 a.m.

At the orbiting laboratory, the Axiom Space astronauts would carry out a full mission comprised of science, outreach and commercial activities. During their mission, Barnawi and Al Qarni will conduct 20 experiments, including research into predicting and preventing cancer and a study into how to generate artificial rain in future human settlements on the Moon and Mars. Their experiments would also focus on human research, cell sciences, and cloud seeding experiments in the microgravity environment. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the mission is also to expand space science education in the Kingdom. Saudi male and female students will participate in scientific experiments conducted on the ISS.

Saudi Arabia established the Saudi Space Commission in 2018 and launched a program last year to send astronauts into space. The mission to the ISS will be the second in partnership with ISS-key holder NASA by Axiom Space, a private space company, which offers the rare voyages for sums that run into the millions of dollars.

It is noteworthy that the voyage of the Saudi astronauts comes within the framework of the Kingdom’s program for astronauts, which aims to qualify experienced Saudi cadres for space flights, and to participate in conducting scientific experiments, international research and future missions related to the space sector.

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