The realm of commercial spaceflight expanded a bit Sunday evening as Axiom Space saw its second crew head to the International Space Station (ISS). Under a rain-cooled Florida sky, the AX-2 Mission lifted off at 5:37 PM, right on schedule. As launches go, this one was about as picture-perfect as possible, with only two minor pre-launch concerns, which were quickly resolved.
Onboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon named Freedom, retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson became the first female commander of a private space mission, adding to her accomplishment of having previously been the first female commander of the International Space Station. Whitson already holds the record for having the longest cumulative time in space of any American astronaut. She now works as the Director of Human Spaceflight for Axiom Space. Axiom is currently the only commercial company approved by NASA to take astronauts to and from the ISS for short-duration missions. The current mission is slated to last eight days.
Civilian John Shoffner is the mission pilot. Shoffner is a businessman, aviator, and race car driver. A lifelong advocate for STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics), Shoffner has over 8500 flight hours and is rated to fly a variety of aircraft. Shoffner founded his own motorsports team, J-2 Racing. The job of a pilot onboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft is to monitor systems, make critical flight-related decisions where needed, and manually fly the spacecraft in the event of a critical system failure. Crew Dragon is designed to fly entirely autonomously throughout the full duration of its missions, including automated docking, de-orbit, and landing procedures. Still, it has manual control systems in case anything should go wrong, and the astronauts have to take over.
Serving as Mission Specialists on this flight are Saudi nationals Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Alqarni. Both astronauts are sponsored by the Saudi government and are graduates of the inaugural Saudi national astronaut class. The Ax-2 mission marks their first trip into space. With the launch of this mission, Barnawi became the first Arab Muslim woman to fly in space and one of the first Saudi astronauts to visit the ISS. Barnawi ‘s background is in research, having worked as a lab technician in the Stem Cell and Tissue Re-engineering Program at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Alqarni is an astronaut with the Saudi Space Commission. Alqarni served as a fighter pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force and holds a degree in Aerospace Science. He, along with Barnawi, will become the first Saudis to visit the ISS.
Axiom Space describes the Ax-2 mission as a pivotal step in the journey toward Axiom Station, which is planned by the company to be the world’s first commercial space station and successor to the International Space Station. The eight-day Ax-2 mission will see astronauts conduct more than twenty different experiments while on board the ISS. According to the company, data collected in flight will impact our understanding of human physiology on Earth and in space. The experiments will also establish the utility of novel technologies that can be used for future spaceflight, as well as improving life on Earth.
Experiments to be conducted include immune dysfunction on tumor models that can help predict and prevent cancer, a better understanding of how commercial crew members adapt to microgravity, and exploring how weather modification works in low-gravity conditions.