Two Saudi astronauts will blast off to space in the early hour of Monday to join UAE astronaut Sultan AlNeyadi aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Several firsts will be achieved in this historic space mission, including having the first female Arab astronaut in space, the first time two Arab countries are represented in the orbiting space laboratory, and the first time three Arab astronauts will work together on a scientific mission 400kms above Earth.

Here, we give you the lowdown on this landmark moment in space history, and how the Middle East has the potential to become a leader in the global space industry.

Who are the Saudi astronauts? When is liftoff?

Rayyanah Barnawi, 33, is set to become the first Arab female Muslim astronaut to go to space. She and compatriot Ali AlQarni, 31, are part of the Axiom Mission-2 (Ax-2) that will lift off from Kennedy Space Center at 1.37am (UAE time) on Monday (May 22) aboard the Dragon Freedom crew that will be sent to space by SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

After almost 16 hours, the Dragon Crew spacecraft carrying Ax-2 that includes commander Peggy Whitson and pilot John Shoffner, is expected to dock on the space-facing port of the ISS Harmony module at 5.24pm on Monday.

Barnawi received a Master’s Degree in Biomedical Sciences from Alfaisal University in Riyadh and a Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences from Otago University in New Zealand. She is a research laboratory technician with 9 years of experience in breast cancer and cancer stem-cell research.

AlQarni graduated with a Bachelor of Aerospace Science from King Faisal Air Academy. He is a fighter pilot and Air Force captain, with 12 years of experience flying fighter planes.

What they will do aboard ISS?

The Saudi astronauts will conduct 14 pioneering scientific experiments in microgravity that will help scientists and researchers devise new ways to provide suitable conditions for humans to explore space further. The astronauts will also conduct three educational awareness experiments with 12,000 Saudi students via live feed.

According to the Saudi government, the space flight “is an integral milestone of a comprehensive program aiming to train and qualify experienced Saudis to undertake human spaceflight, conduct scientific experiments, participate in international research, and future space-related missions contributing to the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.”

How long will they stay on the orbiting laboratory?

Eight days.

Where did they train?

The Saudi astronauts received training at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and also at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. Aside from Barnawi and AlQarni, two more Saudi astronauts, Mariam Fardous and Ali AlGamdi, were trained for future space missions as part of the Saudi Human Spaceflight Programme.

What did they say about the mission?

Barnawi said: “I am very happy and honoured representing the government of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Space Commission as the first Saudi woman astronaut going to ISS. I’m very honoured and happy to be representing all the dreams and hopes of all the people in Saudi Arabia and all the women back home and the region. The mission will be a successful one and we have plenty of research to do on board the ISS. I am sure we’re going to enjoy this mission.”

AlQarni, for his part, said: “We are really thrilled and excited for our mission and to represent Saudi Arabia on this journey. I am really looking forward to all the experiments that we are going to be conducting on the ISS.”

Will they bring something special to the ISS?

According to reports, the Saudi astronauts will take traditional Saudi coffee and dates to the ISS to share with the ISS crew members, including AlNeyadi, who incidentally will be celebration his 42nd birthday on May 23.

How significant is this mission of the Arab world?

Barnawi and AlQarni pointed out the fact that there will be three Arab astronauts onboard the ISS will send a strong message of inspiration to the entire world that “Arabs are holding hands and are working together for the betterment of humanity.

“It will be very interesting for us to be together, working together on the ISS which will show the national collaboration and the unity that space has,” they underscored.

Experts in the space industry say seeing “the UAE and Saudi Arabia working together in space is reflective of the region’s value in collaboration and partnerships. This will boost the growth of the region’s collective space ambitions.”

While 263 people from 20 countries have visited the ISS, Saudi Arabia will become only the sixth nation to have two national astronauts simultaneously working aboard the orbiting laboratory. The mission comes nearly 40 years after Saudi Arabia sent the first Arab – Prince Sultan bin Salman – to space in 1985.

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