ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Saudi Arabia’s first female astronaut blasts off for space station

Saudi stem-cell researcher and fighter pilot, along with US businessman, head to International Space Station on Axiom charter, which flew Israeli Eytan Stibbe on debut trip in 2022

Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi waves to family and friends as she arrives at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for a scheduled launch Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP/John Raoux)
Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi waves to family and friends as she arrives at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for a scheduled launch Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP/John Raoux)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s first astronauts in decades rocketed toward the International Space Station on a chartered multimillion-dollar flight Sunday.

SpaceX launched the ticket-holding crew, led by a retired NASA astronaut now working for the company that arranged the trip from Kennedy Space Center. Also on board: a US businessman who now owns a sports car racing team.

The four should reach the space station in their capsule Monday morning; they’ll spend just over a week there before returning home with a splashdown off the Florida coast.

Sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government, Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher, became the first woman from the kingdom to go to space. She was joined by Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot with the Royal Saudi Air Force.

They’re the first from their country to ride a rocket since a Saudi prince launched aboard shuttle Discovery in 1985. In a quirk of timing, they’ll be greeted at the station by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates.

“Hello from outer space! It feels amazing to be viewing Earth from this capsule,” Barnawi said after settling into orbit.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon capsule and a crew of four private astronauts, lifts off from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP/John Raoux)

Added al-Qarni: “As I look outside into space, I can’t help but think this is just the beginning of a great journey for all of us.”

Rounding out the visiting crew: Knoxville, Tennessee’s John Shoffner, former driver and owner of a sports car racing team that competes in Europe, and chaperone Peggy Whitson, the station’s first female commander who holds the US record for most accumulated time in space: 665 days and counting.

“It was a phenomenal ride,” Whitson said after reaching orbit. Her crewmates clapped their hands in joy.

It’s the second private flight to the space station organized by Houston-based Axiom Space. The first was last year by three businessmen, including Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, with another retired NASA astronaut. The company plans to start adding its own rooms to the station in another few years, eventually removing them to form a stand-alone outpost available for hire.

Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe speaks to the Ynet news site from the International Space Station, on April 12, 2022. (Screen capture/Ynet)

Axiom won’t say how much Shoffner and Saudi Arabia are paying for the planned 10-day mission. The company had previously cited a ticket price of $55 million each.

NASA’s latest price list shows per-person, per-day charges of $2,000 for food and up to $1,500 for sleeping bags and other gear. Need to get your stuff to the space station in advance? Figure roughly $10,000 per pound ($20,000 per kilogram), the same fee for trashing it afterward. Need your items back intact? Double the price.

At least the email and video links are free.

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

The crew of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Crew Dragon spacecraft, from left, Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi, commandeer Peggy Whitson, pilot John Shoffner and Saudi Arabian astronaut Ali al-Qarni arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., before their launch to the International Space Station, Sunday, May 21, 2023. (AP /Terry Renna)

After decades of shunning space tourism, NASA now embraces it with two private missions planned a year. The Russian Space Agency has been doing it, off and on, for decades.

“Our job is to expand what we do in low-Earth orbit across the globe,” said NASA’s space station program manager Joel Montalbano.

SpaceX’s first-stage booster landed back at Cape Canaveral eight minutes after liftoff — a special treat for the launch day crowd, which included about 60 Saudis. “It was a very, very exciting day,” said Axiom’s Matt Ondler.

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