The second private crew to the International Space Station (ISS) is getting ready to strap into a SpaceX Dragon capsule, venturing to low Earth orbit as part of Axiom Space’s follow-up mission to the orbiting lab.
Axiom Mission 2, or Ax-2, is scheduled for liftoff aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 5:37 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 21. The rocket will launch from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Following a roughly 16-hour journey to low Earth orbit, the four-person crew will dock to the space station’s Harmony module and begin its eight-day stay on board the ISS.
Veteran astronaut Peggy Whitson, who is currently Axiom Space’s Director of Human Spaceflight, will lead the crew as the Ax-2 mission commander. “There’s so many lessons learned after being up in space for 665 days, I’ve got one or two lessons I’ve maybe learned the hard way,” Whitson said during a press call on Tuesday. “I’m trying to save them some time because our mission is relatively short, so we want to make sure we get the most out of every one of those days.”
Whitson has had three long-duration stays on board the ISS and holds the record for most days spent in space by a NASA astronaut. Having an experienced astronaut at the helm of the mission is now part of NASA’s requirements for private crews heading up to the space station.
Saudi Arabia bought two tickets for its astronauts on board Ax-2. Mission Specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi will journey to space for the first time as part of the kingdom’s first class of astronauts.
Barnawi, a biomedical researcher, is set to become the first woman from Saudi Arabia to go to space. “When the announcement happened in Saudi Arabia, [Alqarni and I] were training here in Houston,” Barnawi said during the call. “Everyone was super excited for this mission, seeing people from their own region go to the space station with the great commander Peggy and international partners is a great thing for them.”
Alqarni and Barnawi will be joining a third astronaut from the Arab world currently on board the ISS, Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi. Al Neyadi launched to the ISS on March 2 as part of SpaceX’s Crew-6 mission. He was selected by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) as part of an agreement between NASA and Axiom Space.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the three of us to be on board the ISS, and will hold a big message...to inspire people,” Alqarni said. “For us as the Arab world, we are working together for the betterment of humanity.”
The Ax-2 crew is rounded out by pilot John Shoffner, who purchased a ticket to space through the company in 2021. Shoffner recalled falling in love with space at eight years old when the space race was just kicking off. “We formed a young astronauts club in the small town Middlesboro, Kentucky, where I grew up, and that was our weekend fun, pretending to train as Gemini pilots and it never left me, so here I am.”
Although their time on board the space station is relatively short, the Ax-2 crew members are set to carry out a variety of science experiments and research in orbit.
Crew members will examine the effects of the microgravity environment on the production of stem cells as part of a project by the Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute. Another stem cell project aims to improve the detection of precancerous and cancerous cells, building on a previous research project that was part of Axiom Space’s first mission to the ISS in collaboration with the Stanford Stem Cell Institute.
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The Ax-2 crew is also set to test a wearable suit designed to simulate Earth’s gravity. Developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the suit is meant to mitigate the effects of microgravity on the body during long duration flights.
Ax-2 is a follow up to Axiom Space’s first private mission to the ISS, Ax-1, which launched in April 2022.
Following the return of the Ax-1 mission, NASA admitted to having learned some important lessons about having private crews on board the space station. The Ax-1 crew members complained that their schedules were too packed and the private astronauts sometimes got in the way of the regular crew of astronauts aboard the ISS. As a result, the space agency updated a few of its rules for future private astronaut crews venturing to low Earth orbit.
The experience from the first mission also affected how the first-time astronauts trained for their upcoming flight. “We learned some lessons from Ax-1, but also, recognizing that we need to go back to more of a short duration training style,” Whitson said during the call. “I’ve tried to optimize our training flow to be much more short duration focused, focusing on the areas that we need the most experience with...so we’ve changed that focus of the training, which is I think really made this crew so much more ready this time around.”
The Ax-2 crew is scheduled to undock from the space station at the end of May after having spent a little more than a week working alongside ISS astronauts.
It’s an exciting time for the four-person crew gearing up for their time in orbit. Barnawi joked that she had called her grandmother earlier this week, who finally gave her her blessings to go on the orbital journey. “I was like, that’s a little late setto [Arabic for grandmother], I’m already in quarantine.”