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Saudi Arabia’s 1st female astronaut hopes kids follow in her footsteps

Rayyanah Barnawi intends to blaze a trail for many others to follow.

Barnawi is one of the four astronauts on the private Ax-2 mission to the International Space Station (ISS), which is scheduled to launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday afternoon (May 21). 

That liftoff will make Barnawi the first woman from Saudi Arabia ever to reach space. And, if all goes according to plan, on Monday morning (May 22) she and Ax-2 crewmate Ali Alqarni will become the first people from the kingdom to visit the orbiting lab. 

Barnawi knows that people in her home country — especially women and girls — will be following the mission closely, and she embraces the responsibility and opportunity that come with such attention. 

“I am very honored and and happy to be representing all the dreams and and all the hopes of all the people in Saudi Arabia and all the women back home,” she said in a prelaunch press conference on Tuesday (May 16). “This is a great opportunity for me to represent the country, to represent their dreams.”

Related: SpaceX to launch 1st Saudi woman to space on private Ax-2 mission 

Ax-2 will be the second private astronaut mission to the ISS operated by Houston-based company Axiom Space using SpaceX hardware. The first, Ax-1, sent four people to the ISS for more than two weeks in April 2022. (Ax-2 will spend eight days docked to the orbiting lab.)

Ax-2’s commander is Peggy Whitson, who racked up more total time in space — 665 days — than any other woman or American during her time as a NASA astronaut but now flies for Axiom. The fourth crewmate is John Shoffner, an investor and paying customer who will serve as Ax-2’s pilot. Alqarni and Barnawi, members of Saudi Arabia’s first astronaut class, will be mission specialists.

The quartet will conduct more than 20 science experiments during their time off Earth, many of them human health and physiology investigations. Barnawi, a biomedical researcher with nearly a decade of experience in cancer stem-cell research, will be heavily involved with those. 

“During the Ax-2 mission, she will be focusing her attention on stem cell and breast cancer research,” Axiom Space wrote in a short biography of the astronaut.

The Ax-2 crew will also devote a significant amount of time to outreach and education, especially activities designed to get children excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Barnawi said she and her crewmates are especially looking forward to this work.

“We’re very excited for the part that will be engaging with kids from all over Saudi Arabia and all over the world, talking about our experiments, talking about space and having them trigger their curiosity towards space,” she said in the May 16 press conference.

Barnawi added that excitement about the mission in Saudi Arabia is palpable, saying it has come in “overwhelming waves.” She hopes that enthusiasm helps nurture a new generation of Saudis eager to explore the final frontier.

“Seeing people from their own region going to the space station with the great commander Peggy and international partners is a great thing for them — just being able to understand that this is possible,” she said. “And if me and Ali can do it, then they can do it, too.”

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