CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — On Sunday, Saudi Arabia sent its first astronauts in decades on a million-dollar chartered journey to the International Space Station. From Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX launched the paying passengers, who were escorted by a former NASA astronaut who now works for the firm that organized the trip. In addition, we have a U.S. businessman who recently purchased a sports car racing team.
The four astronauts are scheduled to arrive at the space station on Monday morning, where they will remain for just over a week before returning to Earth and splashing down off the coast of Florida. Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher, was the first woman from Saudi Arabia and the first to travel to space thanks to government sponsorship. Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot in the Saudi Royal Air Force, joined her.
Peggy Whitson, the station’s first female commander and the current holder of the U.S. record for most cumulative time in space, with 665 days and counting, and John Shoffner, a former driver and owner of a sports car racing team that competes in Europe, round out the visiting crew. Since a Saudi royal flew aboard shuttle Discovery in 1985, these two are the first people from their country to ride a rocket. By a stroke of luck, an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates will be waiting to welcome them to the station.
This is Axiom Space’s second privately funded mission to the ISS. Three businesspeople and a retired NASA astronaut made the first attempt last year. In a few more years, the firm intends to begin constructing its own quarters to the station, with the final goal of transforming the space into a privately rented colony. “Greetings from far beyond Earth! Barnawi, now comfortably in orbit, exclaimed, “It feels amazing to be viewing Earth from this capsule.” After entering orbit, Whitson remarked, “That was one phenomenal ride.” Her coworkers cheered and clapped their hands.
The cost that Shoffner and Saudi Arabia are on the hook for throughout the 10-day mission is kept secret by Axiom. A price of $55 million per seat was originally mentioned by the corporation. “As I look outside into space,” al-Qarni continued, “I can’t help but think this is just the beginning of a great journey for all of us.” With full access to the station at their disposal, the visitors can perform experiments, take pictures of Earth, and have video chats with students back on Earth to show them how kites can fly in space with the help of a fan.
According to NASA’s most recent pricing list, daily costs for each crew member are $2,000. This includes $2,000 for food and up to $1,500 for sleeping bags and other equipment. Want to beat the rush and get your supplies to the space station? The cost to dispose of it later is similar, coming in at around $10,000 per pound ($20,000 per kilogram). Want your stuff back in one piece? The cost is double what it was before. At least there’s no cost to use the email and video links.
NASA has changed its mind on space tourism after decades of resistance and is now planning two commercial missions per year. Off and on for decades, the Russian Space Agency has been at it. “Our job is to expand what we do in low-Earth orbit across the globe,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s space station program manager. Eight minutes after launch, SpaceX’s first-stage booster safely returned to Cape Canaveral, delighting the launch day throng, which included roughly sixty Saudis. “It was a very, very exciting day,” Axiom’s Matt Ondler remarked.