Peggy Whitson, America’s most experienced astronaut with 665 days in space and 10 spacewalks over three stays aboard the International Space Station, is poised to build on her legacy as one of the consensus “GOATs” — greatest of all time — in the American space program.
With a Ph.D. in biochemistry and two stints as commander of the space station, Whitson, former chief of NASA’s astronaut corps, last flew in space in 2017 after completing a 289-day station flight. She 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, is poised to blast off on her fourth flight Sunday, this time as commander of the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Freedom.”
She’ll be joined by retired businessman, race car driver and adventurer John Shoffner, serving as co-pilot, and two Saudi Arabian astronauts: F-16 fighter pilot Ali Alqarni and biomedical researcher Rayyanah Barnawi.
“I wanted to be able to fly in space again,” Whitson said in an interview with CBS News, “but the realistic part of Peggy said, no, you’re not likely to be able to. And so, it’s just a thrill and a half to have this opportunity to fly for Axiom.”
It is the second “private astronaut mission,” or PAM, to the International Space Station chartered by Axiom and sanctioned by NASA, which is trying to encourage private-sector development of low-Earth orbit.
Neither SpaceX nor Axiom will say how much the flight cost or how much Shoffner and the Saudi government chipped in for Alqarni and Barnawi. But seats are thought to cost more than $50 million each.
In any case, Alqarni and Barnawi will be the second and third Saudis to fly in space after 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 become the first Saudi woman to fly in space.
“Research has been my passion in life,” she said at a pre-launch news conference. “I’m very happy and honored to be here today representing the government of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Space Commission as the first Saudi woman astronaut going 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 planned for 5:37 p.m. EST Sunday with a backup launch opportunity at 5:14 p.m. Monday. It will be the tenth piloted flight of a SpaceX Crew Dragon, the California rocket builder’s third non-government mission 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 Sunday, falling to just 20 percent “go” on Monday due to expected thunderstorms.
The Ax-2 crew only has two shots at getting off in May. If the weather or some other issue keeps them on the ground past Monday, the flight could slip into the late summer-fall timeframe because of other already-planned launches, multiple spacewalks and the first piloted 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 Bowersox, director of space operations at NASA. “And it was a real challenge for the team to find this two-day window for the (Ax-2) mission.”
Assuming an on-time launch Sunday, Whitson and Shoffner will monitor an automated rendezvous with the space station, catching up and moving in for docking at the Harmony module’s space-facing port at 9:24 a.m. Monday. For a day-late launch on Monday, docking would be expected around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Whenever they arrive, they’ll be welcomed aboard the station by Expedition 69 commander Sergey Prokopyev and his two Soyuz MS-23 crewmates, Dmitri Petelin and NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, along with NASA Crew 6 fliers Steve Bowen, Woody Hoburg, UAE astronaut Sultan Alneyadi and cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev.
During an eight-day stay, Whitson, Shoffner, Alqarni and Barnawi plan to carry out 20 research projects, 14 of them developed by Saudi scientists, that range from human physiology and cell biology to technology development. Equally important, if not more so: public outreach.
“This is a huge, huge event in Saudi Arabia,” said Derek Hassmann, Axiom chief of mission integration and operations. “During the time they’re docked to ISS, there is a whole series of media events scheduled.
“One of the focuses 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 have a whole series of post-flight events planned as well.”
Barnawi said “we are here as STEM educators for the kids to be (attracted) to math and science, technology, to know that they can do more.”
Added Alqarni: “We’re going to be doing three education and awareness experiments with the kids and it’s going to be a live event, which is going to be amazing for them. It’s going to be a huge opportunity to compare the results that they had on the ground with the one we are going to have aboard the ISS.”
One such student experiment: building a kite and comparing how one flies aboard the station in the absence of gravity with how student-built kites fly on Earth.
Getting everything done in the tightly-scripted eight-day mission will be a challenge. But the rookies have one of the world’s most experienced astronauts as their guide, and Whitson has done her best to prepare them for the challenges of living and working in space.
“I have shared a long long list of what we’re going to do, what we’re not going to do, how we’re going to do things, the whys behind all of those,” she said. “Because there’s so many lessons learned after being up in space for 665 days, I’ve got one or two lessons I’ve maybe learned the hard way.
“I’m trying to save them some time because our mission is relatively short. So we want to make sure we get the most out of every one of those days.”
During the Ax-2 crew’s stay aboard the station, the only off-limits area for the rooky visitors is the Quest airlock where delicate spacewalk hardware is housed. They will be free to visit the Russian segment at the invitation of the cosmonauts and they are trained to operate basic equipment without supervision.
“For the galley and the potty, both essential functions, obviously, they’ve got a tremendous amount of training,” Hassmann said. “But on orbit, once they reach ISS, the first time they use each of these things, first time they prepare their meals in the galley, before they use the toilet for the first time, they’re going to get a (briefing) from the ISS crew.”
And they’ll be able to show their appreciation. Alqarni said he’s 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 plunge back to Earth and splashdown off the coast of Florida.
The Ax-2 flight is the second such private astronaut mission to the station booked by Axiom, a company led by Mike Suffredini, NASA’s former space station program manager, and other government and private-sector 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 a stand-alone commercial space station.
Whitson’s Ax-2 mission, like the Ax-1 flight in 2022 before it, is seen as a critical step toward developing the company’s space station, an orbital base that can be used by government and private astronauts and researchers alike after the International Space Station is retired at the end of the decade.
“The Ax-2 mission represents the continued progress that NASA and industry are making to build a robust commercial economy in low Earth orbit,” said Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s commercial low-Earth orbit development program.
“The future we envision for low-Earth orbit builds on the lessons from ISS along with these private astronaut missions and gets us closer to our goal of government and private astronauts working side by side on commercially owned and operated space stations in the future.”