Milestone: First Arab female astronaut reaches space station

Rayyanah Barnawi (2nd right) and fellow Saudi astronaut Ali Alqarni (2nd L) inside the International Space Station (22 May 2023)
Rayyanah Barnawi (2nd R) and fellow Saudi astronaut Ali Alqarni (2nd L)

The first female Arab astronaut to go to space has arrived at the International Space Station (ISS).

Rayyanah Barnawi is one of two Saudis on Axiom Space’s second private mission, which took off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the US on Sunday.

During her scheduled 10 days in orbit on the ISS, the 34-year-old biomedical scientist plans to carry out stem cell and breast cancer research.

She hopes to inspire women from all backgrounds in the Middle East.

In a video filmed in space before she reached the ISS, she said: “To the people around the world, the future is very bright. I would like you to dream big, believe in yourselves and believe in humanity.”

Ms Barnawi is joined on Axiom Mission 2 by fellow Saudi mission specialist Ali Alqarni, the second male astronaut from the Gulf kingdom to go to space, and two Americans, commander Peggy Whitson and pilot John Shoffner.

The crew travelled to space inside SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which sat atop the Falcon 9 rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday.

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

Ms 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.

Rayyanah Barnawi gestures before Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) takes off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida (21 May 2023)

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

She also said she was looking forward to sharing her experience on board the ISS through video link-ups with children. “Being able to see their faces when they see astronauts from their own region for the first time is very thrilling.”

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