JEDDAH: The second all-private mission to fly to the International Space Station returned to Earth off the coast of Florida on Wednesday, carrying two Saudi astronauts following eight days of scientific research aboard the ISS.
The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule carrying them parachuted down onto the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, after a 12-hour return flight and blazing re-entry plunge through Earth's atmosphere.
The splashdown was carried live by a joint webcast presented by SpaceX and the company behind the mission, Axiom Space.
Mission Specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi participated in experiments with Saudi school children as part of their eight-day stay on ISS.
When the door of the capsule opened Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Arab woman to orbit Earth, gave a thumbs up to the camera.
The four astronauts were helped out of the capsule by crew before boarding a helicopter to land where they are due to be flown to Cape Canaveral by plane, where they will meet their families.
The touchdown concluded the second space station mission organized, equipped and trained entirely at private expense by Axiom, a 7-year-old Houston-based venture headed by NASA's former ISS program manager.
The Saudi government picked up the multimillion-dollar tab for its two astronauts: Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher who became the first Saudi woman in space; and fighter pilot Ali al-Qarni.
The Axiom 2 crew was led by retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, 63, who holds the US record for most time spent in orbit with 665 days in space over three long-duration missions to the ISS, including 10 spacewalks.
During the mission tasks involved working with cutting-edge technologies, while the two Saudis acted as global ambassadors in the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.
TIMELINE: AX-2 mission’s return to Earth
Some do argue that strictly speaking Barnawi was not the first Arab woman to enter space.
Indeed, in August 2022, Sara Sabry became the first Arab woman and the first Egyptian to fly to space on a brief suborbital ride operated by the Blue Origin astro-tourist venture of Jeff Bezos.
But Barnawi was the first to enter space and orbit Earth.
The ISS stay of Alqarni and Barnawi was also notable for overlapping with that of Sultan Alneyadi, an ISS Expedition-69 crew member from the United Arab Emirates, marking the first time three astronauts from the Arab world were aboard the space station together.
In an emotional farewell ceremony at the end of the mission on Monday, the Axiom-2 crew members reflected on their time in space.
Barnawi said: “Every story comes to an end, and this is only the beginning of a new era for our country and our region.”
Al-Qarni, who with Barnawi became the first Saudi to visit the space station, said: “This is our last day in our great mission. We have achieved all our tasks and it will benefit our country and people in the future.”
Both the astronauts completed 14 pioneering experiments in microgravity, three of which were dedicated to educational and motivational purposes with the participation of 12,000 Saudi students in 47 different locations across the Kingdom.
With them, the craft returned to Earth with a cargo including NASA hardware and data from over 20 different experiments.
The flight launched on May 21 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and docked with the station on May 22.
The Axiom 2 mission, which launched on May 21, was the latest in a series of space expeditions bankrolled by private investment capital and wealthy passengers rather than by taxpayer dollars as NASA seeks to expand commercial access to low-Earth orbit.
Axiom, which sent its first four-member astronaut team to ISS in April 2022, also has signed a contract with the U.S. space agency to build the first commercial addition to the orbiting laboratory.
California-based SpaceX, founded by Twitter owner and Tesla Inc electric carmaker CEO Elon Musk, supplied the Falcon 9 rocket and crew capsule that ferried Axiom’s team to and from orbit and controlled the flight.
NASA furnished the launch site at its Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and assumed responsibility for the Axiom crew during their stay aboard the space station, orbiting some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.