Private astronaut crew, including first Arab woman in orbit, returns from space station
By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) -An all-private astronaut team of two Americans and two Saudis, including the first Arab woman sent into orbit, splashed down safely off Florida on Tuesday night, capping an eight-day research mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying them parachuted into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, after a 12-hour return flight and blazing re-entry plunge through Earth’s atmosphere.
The splashdown was carried live by a joint webcast presented by SpaceX and the company behind the mission, Axiom Space.
It concluded the second space station mission organized, equipped and trained entirely at private expense by Axiom, a 7-year-old Houston-based venture headed by NASA’s former ISS program manager.
The Axiom 2 crew was led by retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, 63, who holds the U.S. record for most time spent in orbit with 665 days in space over three long-duration missions to the ISS, including 10 spacewalks. She now serves as Axiom’s director of human spaceflight.
“That was a phenomenal ride. We really enjoyed all of it,” Whitson radioed to mission controllers moments after splashdown.
Ax-2’s designated pilot was John Shoffner, 67, an aviator, race car driver and investor from Alaska.
Rounding out the crew as mission specialists were the first two astronauts from Saudi Arabia to fly aboard a private spacecraft – Ali Alqarni, 31, a fighter pilot for the Royal Saudi Air Force; and Rayyanah Barnawi, 34, a biomedical scientist in cancer stem-cell research.
Barnawi is the first woman from the Arab world ever launched into Earth orbit and the first Saudi woman to fly in space, an achievement that came barely five years after women in the Gulf kingdom gained the right to drive in June 2018.
In August 2022, Sara Sabry became the first Arab woman and the first Egyptian to fly to space on a brief suborbital ride operated by the Blue Origin astro-tourist venture of Jeff Bezos.
The ISS stay of Alqarni and Barnawi was also notable for overlapping with that of Sultan Alneyadi, an ISS Expedition-69 crew member from the United Arab Emirates, marking the first time three astronauts from the Arab world were aboard the space station together.
The Axiom 2 mission, which launched on May 21, was the latest in a series of space expeditions bankrolled by private investment capital and wealthy passengers rather than by taxpayer dollars as NASA seeks to expand commercial access to low-Earth orbit.
Axiom, which sent its first four-member astronaut team to ISS in April 2022, also has signed a contract with the U.S. space agency to build the first commercial addition to the orbiting laboratory.
California-based SpaceX, founded by Twitter owner and Tesla Inc electric carmaker CEO Elon Musk, supplied the Falcon 9 rocket and crew capsule that ferried Axiom’s team to and from orbit and controlled the flight.
NASA furnished the launch site at its Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and assumed responsibility for the Axiom crew during their stay aboard the space station, orbiting some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Howard Goller and Gerry Doyle)