Peggy Whitson, the most accomplished American astronaut with 665 days in space and 10 spacewalks during three stints aboard the International Space Station, is poised to build on her legacy as one of the consensus “GOATs” — the greatest of all time — in the U.S. space program.
With the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. in biochemistry and served two stints as space station commander, Whitson, a former NASA astronaut squad leader, last flew into space in 2017 after completing 289-day station flight. She never hoped to fly into space again.
But after leaving NASA and joining Houston-based Axiom Space as director of human spaceflight, Whitson, now 63, is ready to jump on the bandwagon. fourth flight on Sundaythis time as the commander of the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Freedom”.
She will be joined by retired businessman, racing driver and adventurer John Shoffner, who served as co-pilot, and two astronauts from Saudi Arabia: F-16 fighter pilot Ali Alkarni and biomedical researcher Ryan Barnawi.
“I wanted to go into space again,” Whitson told CBS News, “but the realistic part of Peggy said, no, you’re not going to be able to. And so it’s just a thrill and a half to have this opportunity to fly for Axiom.”
This is the second “private astronaut mission,” or PAM, to the International Space Station chartered by Axiom and authorized by NASA, which is trying to encourage the private sector to develop low Earth orbit.
Neither SpaceX nor Axiom would say how much the flight cost or how much Shoffner and the Saudi government invested in Alkarni and Barnawi. But each seat is estimated to cost more than $50 million.
Either way, Alkarni and Barnawi will become the second and third Saudis to fly into space since Sultan Salman Al Saud flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. They will be the first Saudis to visit the space station, and Barnawi will be the first Saudi woman to fly into space.
“Research has been my passion in life,” she said at a press conference before the launch. “I am very happy and honored to be here today representing the government of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Space Commission as the first Saudi female astronaut to go to the International Space Station.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to represent the country, to represent their dreams… It’s a dream come true for everyone.”
Liftoff atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for 5:37 p.m. EST Sunday, with a backup launch possible at 5:14 p.m. Monday. This will be the tenth manned flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the third non-government mission by the California rocket engineer and the second chartered by Axiom Space.
But as with many afternoon launches this time of year, the weather could be a factor with only a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions on Sunday, with that dropping to a 20 percent chance on Monday due to expected thunderstorms.
The Ax-2 crew only has two shots to go in May. If weather or another problem prevents them from staying on the ground past Monday, the flight could take place in the late summer or fall due to other launches already planned, several spacewalks and the first manned flight of the Boeing Starliner capsule in July.
“The schedule is really tight with all the missions launching from different parts of the world,” said Ken Bowersox, 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 an on-time launch Sunday, Whitson and Shofner will oversee an automated rendezvous with the space station, catching up and moving to dock with the Harmony module’s spaceport at 9:24 a.m. Monday. For Monday’s late launch, docking is expected around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Whenever they arrive, they will be greeted aboard the station by Expedition 69 Commander Sergei Prokopiev and his two Soyuz MS-23 crewmates, Dmitri Petelin and NASA Astronaut Frank Rubio, as well as NASA 6 Crew Pilots Steve Bowen, Woody Hoburg, UAE astronaut Sultan Alneyadi and cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev.
During the eight-day stay, Whitson, Shofner, Alkarni and Barnawi plan to carry out 20 research projects, 14 of which were developed by Saudi scientists, ranging from human physiology and cell biology to technology development. Equally important, if not more important: outreach.
“This is a huge, huge event in Saudi Arabia,” said Derek Hasman, Axiom’s head of mission integration and operations. “During their docking with the ISS, a whole series of events for the media is planned.
“One of the highlights of many of these events is interacting with school-aged children in Saudi Arabia. And that was one of the reasons, just the timing of the school year, that we’re very interested in getting this flight done in May. They also have a whole series of post-flight events planned.”
Barnavi said “we’re here as STEM educators to get kids (attracted) to math and science, technology, so they know they can do more.”
Alkarni added: “We will be doing three educational experiments with children and it will be a live event that will be amazing for them. It will be a great opportunity to compare the results they had on the ground with what we will have aboard the ISS.”
One such student experiment: building a kite and comparing how it flies aboard the station in zero gravity with how student-built kites fly on Earth.
Doing everything in the eight-day, tightly scripted mission will be a challenge. But the newcomers are guided by one of the world’s most experienced astronauts, and Whitson has done her best to prepare them for the challenges of living and working in space.
“I shared a long list of what we’re going to do, what we’re not going to do, how we’re going to do things, the why behind it all,” she said. “Because I’ve learned so many lessons after 665 days in space, I have a lesson or two that I may have learned the hard way.
“I’m trying to save them time because our mission is relatively short. So we want to make sure we get the most out of each of those days.”
During the Ax-2 crew’s stay aboard the station, the only area off-limits to newcomers is the Quest Gateway, which houses the fragile spacewalk equipment. They will be able to visit the Russian segment for free at the invitation of cosmonauts and learn to work unsupervised with basic equipment.
“For the galley and the potty, both important functions, they obviously had a tremendous amount of training,” Hussman said. “But in orbit, once they get to the ISS, the first time they use each of these things, the first time they cook in the galley, before they use the toilet for the first time, they’re going to get (a briefing) from crew of the ISS”.
And they will be able to express their gratitude. Alkarni said he was bringing Saudi coffee and dates to share with the station crew.
Assuming they launch Sunday as planned, Whitson and her crewmates plan to undock from the space station on May 30 for a fiery dive back to Earth and land off the coast of Florida.
The Ax-2 flight is the second such private astronaut mission to the station booked by Axiom, which is led by Mike Suffredini, former head of NASA’s space station program, and other public and private space veterans.
Axiom Space is developing a module that will be attached to the International Space Station in the next few years to serve as a precursor to an autonomous commercial space station.
Whitson’s Ax-2 mission, like the 2022 Ax-1 flight before itis seen as a critical step toward the company’s development of a space station, an orbital base that could be used by public and private astronauts and researchers after the International Space Station retires at the end of the decade.
“The Ax-2 mission represents a continuation of the progress that NASA and industry are making to build a robust commercial economy in low Earth orbit,” said Angela Hart, NASA’s Commercial Low Orbit Development Program Manager.
“The future we envision for low Earth orbit builds on the lessons learned from the ISS along with these private astronaut missions and brings us closer to our goal of government and private astronauts working side by side on commercially owned and operated space stations in the future “.