SpaceX and Axiom Space teamed up today to send four spacefliers — including the first Saudi woman in orbit — to the International Space Station for a 10-day trip focusing on zero-gravity research.
SpaceX’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:37 p.m. ET (2:37 p.m. PT) at the end of a trouble-free countdown, sending a Crew Dragon capsule toward a space station rendezvous.
After stage separation, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster flew itself back to a landing zone near the launch pad while the second stage pushed the Crew Dragon into orbit. That marked the first time a Falcon 9 booster made a touchdown on land (as opposed to at sea) after launching a crewed mission.
“It was a phenomenal ride,” Axiom mission commander Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who holds the U.S. record for cumulative time in space, told Mission Control from zero-G.
The mission, which is Texas-based Axiom Space’s second expedition to the space station, combines public and private-sector initiatives: NASA, SpaceX and Axiom are coordinating operations in orbit. Mission pilot John Shoffner, a Tennessee business executive who’s also a race car driver and competitive skydiver, purchased one of the seats on the Crew Dragon at a cost that’s thought to be somewhere in the range of $55 million.
The Saudi government is paying the fare for the Ax-2 mission’s two other crew members: Rayyanah Barnawi, Saudi Arabia’s first female spaceflier, is a biochemist specializing in stem cell research. Ali Alqarni is a Saudi Air Force fighter pilot. Only one other Saudi citizen has previously been to space: Prince Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, who flew on the shuttle Discovery in 1985.