By William Harwood
/ CBS News
A legendary astronaut, two Saudis and a wealthy adventurer blasted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Sunday for a trip to the International Space Station, the second "private astronaut mission" aimed at opening the high frontier to commercial development.
The nine Merlin engines powering the Falcon 9's first stage roared to life at 5:37 p.m. EDT, quickly throttled up to 1.7 million pounds of thrust and smoothly pushed the rocket away from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.
Arcing away on a northeasterly trajectory, the slender rocket put on a spectacular weekend sky show, thrilling thousands of area residents and tourists lining nearby roads and beaches before disappearing into a high deck of clouds.
Monitoring the automated ascent from their seats in the Crew Dragon "Freedom" capsule were commander Peggy Whitson and co-pilot John Shoffner, flanked on the left and right by first-time Saudi fliers Ali Alqarni, a veteran F-16 fighter pilot, and biomedical researcher Rayyanah Barnawi.
Whitson, now retired from NASA, is America's most experienced astronaut, with 665 days in space and 10 spacewalks to her credit during three earlier missions. Shoffner, a retired fiber optics entrepreneur, is a veteran private pilot, high-performance race car driver and skydiver.
Shoffner paid Axiom an undisclosed amount for his seat aboard the Crew Dragon while the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia covered the costs of its two astronauts. Whitson, now director of human spaceflight for Axiom Space, flew as part of the company charter.
"I wanted to be able to fly in space again," Whitson said after her final NASA mission, "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."
After boosting the rocket out of the thick lower atmosphere, the reusable first stage, making its maiden flight, fell away and headed for landing back at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station while the Falcon 9's second stage continued the push to orbit.
In past Crew Dragon flights, booster stages landed on offshore barges and were towed back to shore for refurbishment and reuse. But past experience showed actual performance was better than expected, leaving enough propellant on board to reverse course and return to the launch site. Heralded by twin sonic booms, the Ax-2 first stage dropped out of the clouds and settled to a picture perfect touchdown eight minutes after liftoff.
One minute later, the Crew Dragon capsule slipped into orbit and separated from the Falcon 9 second stage.
"Thanks for putting your trust in the Falcon 9 team, hope you enjoyed the ride to space," radioed SpaceX chief engineer Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's former director of spaceflight operations. "Have a great trip on Dragon. Welcome home to zero G, Peggy."
"It's good to be here," Whitson replied from orbit. "It was a phenomenal ride!"
If all goes well, the crew will monitor an automated rendezvous with the space station, catching up with the lab complex Monday morning and moving in for docking at the forward Harmony module's space-facing port at 9:16 a.m.
They'll be welcomed aboard 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, cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev and United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Alneyadi.
Alneyadi, the second UAE flier to reach space, is the first Arab astronaut to serve as a long-duration crew member aboard the ISS. With the arrival of Alqarni and Barnawi, three of the station's 11 crew members will represent the Middle East.
"I think it is a great opportunity that the three of us can be aboard the International Space Station," Alqarni said. "(That) will hold a big message that we can be sending out to inspire people. And that means for us, as the Arab world, we are holding hands, we are working together for the betterment of humanity."
The Ax-2 flight is the second private astronaut mission, or PAM, to the International Space Station chartered by Axiom. NASA plans to sanction up to two PAM missions each year to encourage private-sector development in low-Earth orbit.
Axiom Space is using the missions to gain the expertise needed to begin building a stand-alone commercial space station that can be used by government and private-sector astronauts and researchers after the International Space Station is retired at the end of the decade.
In the near term, the missions also provide a way for serious, technically competent private citizens and governments without access to space to visit the ISS for research and public outreach — goals encouraged by NASA.
Alqarni and Barnawi are 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.
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, cell biology and technology development.
"Research has been my passion in life," Barnawi said at a pre-launch news conference. "This is a great opportunity for me to represent the country, to represent their dreams. ... This is a dream come true for everyone."
Along with a full slate of experiments, the crew will participate in live broadcasts to school kids across Saudi Arabia as part of a STEM initiative to build interest in science and technology.
"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."
Whitson and her crewmates plan to undock from the station on May 30. After a fiery plunge back into the lower atmosphere, the Crew Dragon will make a parachute descent to splashdown off the coast of Florida where SpaceX recovery crews will be standing by.
"I'm honored to be heading back to the ISS for the fourth time, leading this talented Ax-2 crew on their first mission," Whitson said in an Axiom statement. "This is a strong and cohesive team determined to conduct meaningful scientific research in space and inspire a new generation about the benefits of microgravity."
- International Space Station
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."
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NASA Astronaut Salary
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Cost To Go To the Moon
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