First Saudi Arabian woman astronaut lands at International Space Station

Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi
AP Newsroom

Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi reached the stars and made history on May 21. As part of the SpaceX Ax-2 mission, the 34-year-old became the first woman from her country to reach space. She is part of a four-person crew that took a flight on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station. The voyage, which blasted off Sunday, is scheduled to last 12 days.

Barnawi and her fellow private astronauts arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) at 9:12 a.m. on May 22. This marked the second time a SpaceX crew docked with the Earth-orbiting station. SpaceX shared a video of the current ISS crew welcoming their guests aboard their home away from home.

In a pre-launch press conference, Barnawi expressed her gratitude to her home country for the opportunity to take the historic journey along with a fellow countryman, Ali al-Qarni, as well as Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut and businessman John Shoffner.

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

AP Photo/John Raoux

Having a Saudi Arabian woman astronaut on board the Ax-2 mission strikes a major contrast to historical conservative roles for women in the Arab kingdom. In fact, the country only lifted its driving ban for women in 2018.

As part of the 20 experiments planned for the Ax-2 mission crew, Barnawi will work on stem cell and breast cancer research aboard the ISS. This ties in with her Earth-bound career as a biomedical researcher with an emphasis on cancer research.

The crew will be connecting virtually with children all over the world, including in Saudi Arabia, to discuss the planned experiments and their experience in space. The hope, Barnawi said, is to inspire the next generation of space explorers.

“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 in a press conference, Space.com reports. “And if me and Ali can do it, then they can do it, too.”

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