SpaceX successfully launched Axiom Space’s second mission yesterday, carrying three private customers up to the International Space Station (ISS) for an eight-day-stay. Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) is led by veteran NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, 63, accompanied by the US pilot and investor John Shoffner and Ali AlQarni, a Saudi Arabian fighter pilot.
Completing the crew was the stem cell researcher Rayyanah Barnawi, who has made history as the first Saudi Arabian woman ever to travel to space. The quartet blasted off from Launch Complex 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in a SpaceX Dragon craft atop a Falcon 8 rocket at 5.37pm EDT (10.37pm BST) yesterday.
Following the take-off, NASA administrator Bill Nelson said: “Congratulations to Axiom, SpaceX, and the Axiom Mission 2 crew on a successful launch!
“During their time aboard the International Space Station, the Ax-2 astronauts will carry out more than 20 scientific experiments.”
These investigations, he explained, will help us “better understand space radiation, weather in low-gravity conditions, and more”.
Mr Nelson added: “This mission is more proof of NASA’s commitment to help our industry partners develop the next generation of space technology and support a growing commercial space economy.”
Ms Barnawi said: “Space research hovers over all of humanity, literally and figuratively.
“As such, it should include the voices and perspectives of a truly global community that involves not only a diversity of nations, but a diversity of people.
“I am honoured to represent Saudi Arabia’s growing contributions to this field and proud to be the first Saudi Arabian woman to go to space.
“I hope this mission will inspire girls from various backgrounds, who have not always had these opportunities, to embrace their talents and intellect — and to know they have a crucial role to play in advancing the human experience.”
The Ax-2 mission is expected to autonomously dock with the ISS’s Harmony module at around 9.16am EDT today (2.16pm BST).
After the SpaceX Dragon’s hatch is opened at around 11.13am (4.13pm), a welcoming ceremony for the crew will be held onboard the orbiting laboratory.
Greeting the Ax-2 crew on their arrival will be by the members of ISS Expedition 69.
These include NASA astronauts Stephen Bowen, Woody Hoburg and Frank Rubio; Andrey Fedyaev, Dmitri Petelin and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos; and Sultan Alneyadi of the United Arab Emirates.
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Live coverage of the docking procedure, hatch opening and welcome ceremony is to be provided for viewers down on the Earth.
The stream can be watched on either the NASA Live website, the space agency’s app — which is available for both iOS and Android devices — and the Axiom Space website.
Among the experiments the Ax-2 crew will conduct during their stay on the orbiting laboratory are investigations into impact on microgravity on health and an exploration of “rain-seeding technology” that could increase precipitation in arid regions of Earth.
Weather back down here on Earth permitting, the Ax-2 mission is presently scheduled to depart the ISS on May 30.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule will make a splashdown in the ocean off of the coast of Florida, where the crew will be picked up and returned to dry land.
While Russia has long permitted private citizens to visit the ISS, NASA has only done so recently — starting in 2019, in fact.
Ken Bowersox is the associate administrator of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate.
He told the Telegraph: “These missions are very important to us at NASA as we try to open up space, and low Earth orbit especially, to a greater cross-section of society.
“There’s a lot to be done there. And we think the economy in low Earth orbit will continue to expand and someday NASA will just be a participant in that economy, buying services from private industry in low Earth orbit as NASA goes out and explores on the cutting edge.”
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