MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. (WABC) — Retired astronaut Peggy Whitson is returning to space on Sunday.

NASA officials say the weather looks favorable for an afternoon launch of the Space-X Dragon from the Kennedy Space Center.

“Really the only thing we’re going to have to watch for is the anvil coming off the top of these storms,” ​​Brian Cizek said.

Whitson will be joined by some paid customers. Their trip, organized by Houston-based Axiom, will be the second all-private mission to the orbital outpost.

The mission, named AX-2, will also make history as stem cell researcher Rayana Barnawi will become the first woman from Saudi Arabia to go into space.

A live broadcast of the launch will begin Sunday at 4:30 PM ET, with liftoff expected at 5:37 PM ET from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This mission is the next in a line of flights that Axiom Space and NASA hope will continue to stimulate private sector involvement in spaceflight – especially in low Earth orbit, home to the space station.

Whitson, 63, now works for Axiom. With this mission, Whitson will become the first woman to command a private space flight.

She also holds the record for the number of days in space and the number of spacewalks by a woman.

She will be joined by three paying clients, including John Shoffner, an American who made his fortune in the international telecommunications business and founded hardware company Dura-Line Corp.

Saudi Arabia also paid for the flight of two citizens: Barnawi and Ali Al-Qarni, a fighter pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force.

“It is my great honor and joy to represent all the dreams and hopes of all the people in Saudi Arabia and all the women in the homeland,” Barnawi told reporters last week.

The fully autonomous Crew Dragon capsule is expected to dock with the space station early Monday, and its passengers will join the seven astronauts already aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The AX-2 crew will spend about eight days on the space station. During this time, they will work on more than 20 research and scientific projects – including stem cells and other biomedical research.

Whitson has flown on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft as well as NASA’s space shuttle, but she said training for this mission was “obviously different” because it included training to fly SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which has only flown astronauts since 2020 .

“One of the biggest challenges for me was studying this particular spacecraft,” she said. “But I really enjoyed it.”

Barnawi and Al-Qarni will become only the second and third Saudis to go into space. The first was Prince Sultan bin Salman, who spent about a week on a NASA space shuttle mission in 1985.

Saudi Arabia has faced a barrage of criticism from the Biden administration and Congress over its human rights record, although US-Saudi ties remain strong.

Al-Qarni said he sees Arab participation in spaceflight as a “great opportunity” that can inspire the region.

It will be “a big message… We’re holding hands, we’re working together for the betterment of humanity and just trying to innovate,” he said during a briefing on Tuesday.

This is not the first time that private citizens have paid for their way into space. A company called Space Adventures brokered several such missions to the space station in the early 2000s, booking trips for wealthy thrill-seekers on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Axiom has brought this business model to the United States, partnering with SpaceX to create a framework for bringing many customers to the space station. The company’s first mission, AX-1, launched in April 2022 and was the first private citizen trip to the space station from US soil.

Axiom’s goal is to make these missions routine by offering more opportunities for people who are not professional astronauts to experience space flight. During a pre-launch press conference, Derek Hasman, head of mission integration and operations at Axiom Space, said his company expects more government-sponsored customers like the AX-2 passengers from Saudi Arabia.

“The government’s astronauts are really a key part of our business plan,” he said. “At the beginning of the program…we were not clear what the balance would be between private individuals and government astronauts, because nothing like this had been done before. But it became clear to us that the government… the market is the key, and we are actively pursuing it.”

Axiom management anticipates that private spaceflight will continue even after the space station retires, which NASA expects to happen in 2030. Axiom is one of several American companies that are going to create a new private space station. It’s a NASA-backed effort aimed at expanding private sector involvement closer to home so the agency can focus on investing in deep space exploration.

The AX-2 crew will work alongside professional astronauts on the space station, but they will work on different schedules. Once on board, they will rely on the existing crew to show them the ropes, including the kitchen and bathroom. According to Hasman, some areas will remain off limits, such as the airlock that astronauts use to enter outer space.

CNN contributed to this report.


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