Peggy Whitson, America’s most experienced astronaut with 665 days in space and 10 spaceflights over three stays aboard the International Space Station, is preparing to build on her legacy as one of the “goats” — the greatest of all — in the US space program.
with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and two stints as leader of the space stationWhitson, former head of the NASA Astronaut Corps, last flew into space in 2017 after completing the station’s 289-day journey. You never expected to fly in space again.
But after retiring from NASA and joining Houston-based Axiom Space as director of human spaceflight, Whitson, now 63, plans to launch on her fourth flight Sunday, this time as commander of the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Freedom.”
She will be joined by retired businessman, race car driver and adventurer John Shoffner, who serves as co-pilot, and two Saudi astronauts: F-16 fighter pilot Ali Al-Qarni and biomedical researcher Rayana Barnawi.
“I wanted to be able to fly in space again,” Whitson said in an interview with CBS News, but the real-life part of Peggy said, no, you’re not likely to be able to. Thus, it’s just a thrill and a half for them to have this opportunity to travel to the Axiom.”
It’s the second “private astronaut mission,” or PAM, to the International Space Station chartered by Axiom and cleared by NASA, which is trying to encourage the private sector to develop low Earth orbit.
Neither SpaceX nor Axiom will say how much the flight cost or how much Shoffner and the Saudi government paid Al-Qarni and Barnawi. But the seats are believed to cost more than $50 million each.
In any case, Al-Qarni and Al-Barnawi will be the second and third Saudis to fly in space after Sultan Salman Al Saud flew on the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. They will be the first Saudis to visit the space station, and Al-Barnawi will become the first Saudi to visit the space station. The first Saudi woman to fly in space.
“Research has been my passion in life,” she said at a pre-launch press conference. “I am very happy and honored to be here today representing the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Space Authority as the first Saudi female astronaut to go to the International Space Station.
“This is a great opportunity for me to represent the country, to represent their dreams… This is a dream come true for everyone.”
Liftoff atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for 5:37 PM EST with a backup launch opportunity at 5:14 PM on Monday. It will be the tenth flight piloted by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the third non-state rocket builder in California and the second chartered by Axiom Space.
But as with many afternoon launches this time of year, weather can be a factor with only a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions on Sunday, and it drops to just 20 percent on Monday because of expected thunderstorms.
The Ax-2 crew has only two shots at the descent in May. If weather or some other issue keeps them grounded after last Monday, the flight could slide into the late summer and fall timeframe due to other already-planned launches, multiple spacewalks and the first test flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule in July.
“The schedule is really tight with all the missions launching from different parts of the world,” said Ken Powerszox, NASA’s director of space operations. “And it was a real challenge for the team to find that two-day window for the[Ax-2]mission.”
Assuming the launch is on time on Sunday, Whitson and Shoffner will monitor an automatic rendezvous with the space station, catch up and proceed to dock at port Harmony facing space at 9:24 a.m. Monday. For a delayed launch on Monday, docking is expected around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Upon their arrival, they will be welcomed aboard the station by Expedition 69 Commander Sergei Prokopyev and fellow Soyuz MS23 crew members Dmitry Petlin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, along with NASA Crew 6 flyers Steve Bowen, Woody Hoburg, Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi and Pioneer Space Andrey Fedyaev.
During the eight-day stay, Whitson, Shoffner, Al Karni and Barnawi plan to carry out 20 research projects, 14 of which are developed by Saudi scientists, ranging from human physiology and cell biology to technology development. Just as important, if not more so: communicating with the audience.
“This is a huge, huge event in Saudi Arabia,” said Derek Hussmann, Head of Operations Integration and Operations at Axiom. “During the time they are docked on the International Space Station, there is a whole series of informational events scheduled.
“One of the points that many of these events focus on is interaction with school-aged children in Saudi Arabia. And that was one of the reasons, just the timing of the school year, that we were so interested in getting this trip done in May. They have a whole series of post-trip events planned. her too.”
“We are here as STEM educators for children to be (attracted) to math, science and technology, to know that they can do more,” Bernawi said.
Al-Qarni added, “We will do three educational and awareness-raising experiments with children and it will be a live event, and it will be great for them. It will be a great opportunity to compare the results they had on Earth with the one we will have on board the International Space Station.”
One of these students’ experiments: build a kite and compare how one flies on the station in the absence of gravity with how one’s kites fly on the ground.
During the stay of the Ax-2 crew aboard the station, the only off-limits area for noisy visitors is the Quest airlock where the precision spacewalkers are located. They will be free to visit the Russian section at the invitation of the cosmonauts and are trained to operate basic equipment without supervision.
“As for the kitchen and the potty, both of which are essential jobs, they obviously have had a tremendous amount of training,” Hassmann said. “But on orbit, once they get to the ISS, the first time they use each of these things, the first time they prepare their meals in the kitchen, before they use the toilet for the first time, they get (a briefing) from the ISS crew.” .
And they will be able to show their appreciation. Al-Qarni said he brought Saudi coffee and dates to share with the station’s crew.
Assuming they launch on Sunday as planned, Whitson and her colleagues plan to depart from the space station on May 30 in order to return to Earth and land off the coast of Florida.
The Ax-2 flight is the second private astronaut mission to the station booked by Axiom, a company led by Mike Suffredini, former NASA Space Station Program Director, and other space veterans from government and the private sector.
Axiom Space is developing a module that will be attached to the International Space Station in the next few years as a precursor to a self-contained commercial space station.
The Whitson Ax-2 mission, like the 2022 Ax-1 flight before it, is seen as a crucial step toward developing the company’s space station, an orbital base that can be used by astronauts and government and private researchers alike after the International Space Station is retired in End of the contract.
“The Ax-2 mission represents the continued progress that NASA and industry are making to build a strong commercial economy in low Earth orbit,” said Angela Hart, director of NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development Program.
“The future we imagine for low Earth orbit builds on lessons learned from the International Space Station along with these private astronaut missions and brings us closer to our goal of having government and private astronauts work side by side on commercially owned and operated space stations of the future.”
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