The crew of Axiom Space’s second private mission to the International Space Station (ISS) arrived at the orbiting lab on Monday (May 22) to a warm welcome from the station’s current crew.
The mission, known as Ax-2, launched Sunday evening (May 21), carrying commander Peggy Whitson, pilot John Shoffner and mission specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, both of whom are members of Saudi Arabia’s first astronaut class.
Ax-2 caught up to the ISS overnight, docking to the dorsal port of the station’s Harmony module on Monday at 9:12 a.m. EDT (1312 GMT). At 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), crews opened the hatches between Ax-2’s Crew Dragon capsule, named Freedom, and the ISS, and the seven astronauts of Expedition 69 warmly ushered the Ax-2 crew aboard.
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A welcome ceremony was held for the Ax-2 crew, with station commander Sergey Prokopyev of Russia’s federal space agency Roscosmos providing some opening remarks. He congratulated the Ax-2 astronauts on their arrival and hailed SpaceX for a successful launch and landing of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket.
Addressing Alqarni and Barnawi — the first Saudi astronauts ever to reach the ISS — Prokopyev said, “My big congratulations [to the] Saudi Space Commission. I’m sure you will have a great achievement in the future in your space exploration.”
Barnawi is making more history on Ax-2 as well: She’s the first woman from Saudi Arabia to fly to the final frontier. So it’s appropriate that Barnawi is flying with Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who has spent more time in space than any other American and any other woman. That tally stood at 665 days before Ax-2 lifted off.
“It’s an honor to work next to Peggy Whitson, the most experienced and decorated astronaut in the U.S. astronaut corps,” Prokopyev said during the ceremony.
He passed Whitson the mic after his opening remarks. “It’s a lot of fun to be here and to see this place again. It means so much to me,” Whitson said. She then allowed the remaining three Ax-2 crew members to introduce themselves and say some words of their own.
“I’d like to thank NASA for creating the opportunity in opening the doors for private and commercial space exploration, and also the ingenuity of SpaceX and Axiom to develop the next level of space platforms and space access for everyone,” said Shoffner, a paying customer on this mission, adding that flying in space fulfills a lifelong dream for him.
Shoffner added that he and his Ax-2 crewmates are eager for the research the group will get to conduct in orbit. In total, Ax-2 will participate in over 20 projects while aboard the space station.
“We look forward to some great work for STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education outreach and some amazing science that we have going on up here, and I hope you guys will follow us,” Shoffner said.
AlQarni and Barnawi both began their remarks in Arabic and provided English translations following their initial statements. AlQarni thanked the Saudi king and crown prince and encouraged the people of his country to “dream big.” Barnawi echoed those sentiments.
“This shows how space brings everyone together,” Barnawi said. “It brings even different backgrounds. Some of us are doctors, some of us are researchers, engineers and so on. I’m very happy to be here representing the dreams and hopes of everyone back home… I’m gonna live this experience to the max.”
Whitson closed the ceremony by pinning astronaut pins on Shoffner, AlQarni and Barnawi. “John is the 598th astronaut,” she said, securing the pin to his flight suit. “Ali is the 599th astronaut, and our little ‘Ray’ is 600,” Whitson said. “Thanks for inviting all of us up here and welcoming three new astronauts.”