Rayyanah Barnawi in the ISS (collage)

Saudi Arabia’s first female astronaut arrives at the International Space Station

Image credit: Dreamstime and Axiom Space

Stem cell researcher Rayyanah Barnawi is one of the passengers in the latest private flight to the International Space Station.

The International Space Station (ISS) has rolled out the welcome mat for the four participants of Axiom Space's second private mission, which took off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the US on Sunday (21 May).

The crew included the first female Arab astronaut, stem cell researcher Rayyanah Barnawi. She was accompanied by fellow Saudi mission specialist Ali Alqarni, the second male astronaut from the Gulf kingdom to go to space. 

The two are the first Saudis to travel in a rocket since a Saudi prince launched aboard shuttle Discovery in 1985. They were joined on the trip by two US citizens, commander Peggy Whitson and pilot John Shoffner. Whitson is a retired Nasa astronaut who now works for Axiom.

Barnawi has spoken about what the trip means to her, and for Middle Eastern women in general. The 34-year-old biomedical scientist plans to spend her days in orbit carrying out stem cell and breast cancer research.

“This shows how space brings everyone together,” she said. “I’m going to live this experience to the max.”

At a recent news conference, she added that becoming the first female Saudi astronaut to go to space was "a great pleasure and honour that I'm very happy to carry".

Barnawi's experiments will be based on some of the work she has done over the past nine years as a research lab technician at the Stem Cell and Tissue Re-engineering Programme of King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh.

The four Axiom Mission-2 crew members join the seven-member Expedition 69 crew aboard the station and gather together for a crew greeting ceremony.

The four Axiom Mission-2 crew members join the seven-member Expedition 69 crew aboard the station and gather together for a crew greeting ceremony. / Nasa TV

Image credit: Nasa TV

During their time on the space station, the new visitors will conduct more than 20 science and technology experiments, including the repercussions of space on human health and rain-seeding technology.

The guests will have access to most of the station as they conduct experiments, photograph Earth, and chat with school children back home, demonstrating how kites fly in space when attached to a fan.

The astronauts will spend just over a week at the ISS, before returning home with a splashdown just off the coast of Florida.

Mishaal Ashemimry, a Saudi-American aerospace engineer and adviser to the Saudi Space Commission, said: "Our goals are to benefit all humanity through science.

"We hope this mission will inspire girls from various backgrounds in order to advance the human experience."

Saudi fighter pilot Ali al-Qarni dedicated the visit to everyone back home: “This mission is not just for me and Rayyanah. This mission is also for the people with ambition and dreams.”

Trajectory of Dragon spacecraft on its way to ISS

Trajectory of Dragon spacecraft on its way to the ISS

Image credit: SpaceX

The multi-million dollar flight is the second private flight to the space station organised by Axiom Space. Last year, they sent three businessmen there, with another retired Nasa astronaut.

Although the company has not revealed the exact cost of the flight, the Saudi government has chosen to pay for the journeys of the kingdom's two citizens. Shoffner, a businessman from Knoxville, Tennessee has chosen to fund the trip personally, while Whitson acts as the crew's chaperone.

In the past, the trips to the ISS have been priced at $55m (£44m).

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