Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) is Ready to Launch
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since the Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1), as the four-person multinational crew of the Ax-2 prepares to be a part of the latest class of space pioneers. This will be Axiom Space’s second all-private astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS), where they will engage with audiences around the world, conducting extensive research and investigating novel technologies.
The crew will be led by Dr. Peggy Whitson, Axiom Space’s director of Human Spaceflight, with John Shoffner serving as the pilot. Completing the crew are two mission specialists, Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
Bolstering Innovation Through Space Research
Ax-2 is set to launch on May 21 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the crew will fly in SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket. They’ll be working and living in the orbiting laboratory continuing the legacy of last year’s successful mission – even furthering specific experiments which I undertook during my time (the ILAN-ES experiment).
The mission is expanding access for users to conduct scientific research, biomanufacturing and technological demonstrations in low-Earth orbit, and acts as an important step for Axiom Space to pursue research and advancements in microgravity.
Growing Stem Cells in Space for the First Time
During their time aboard the ISS, the Ax-2 crew will conduct over 20 different experiments. One of these experiments involves taking induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which have the ability to form other cell types, with them to space. The astronauts will cultivate the iPSCs and attempt to differentiate them into heart and brain cells, testing the effects of limited gravity and microgravity on the development of these cells.
One of the major challenges when using iPSCs here on Earth is the requirement for producing large quantities at a very high quality. Even with recent improvements, there are still certain limitations when producing these types of stem cells, which need to be overcome in order to be able to mass produce and utilize them for numerous applications including drug discovery and personalized therapies.
The research performed in microgravity through the Axiom Space missions may hold the key to overcoming these limitations, and the data collected will impact our understanding of human physiology on Earth and on-orbit. The Ax-2 mission will facilitate impactful scientific research and in-space manufacturing, helping benefit healthcare and technology, and as such, life on Earth as a whole.
First Saudi Woman in Space
In light of their presence on the crew, the Saudi Press Agency stated, “Human spaceflight is a symbol of countries’ superiority and global competitiveness in many fields such as technology, engineering, research, and innovation”. Furthermore, the Ax-2 mission is making history, with the first Saudi Arabian woman to reach space.
The inclusion of Rayyanah Barnawi in this flight makes it particularly meaningful.. Barnawi is one of two Saudis part of the four-person flight to the ISS, the other being Ali Alqarni, making the KSA one of the few countries in the world to bring two astronauts of the same nationality aboard the ISS simultaneously.
Barnawi and Alqarni will be the first Saudi Arabians to travel to the ISS, and the second and third people from the KSA to ever reach space. The only Saudi citizen to have reached space to date, is Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud. He flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery on the weeklong STS-51-G mission in 1985, becoming the first Muslim and first member of a royal family to go to orbit.
Political Complexity Aboard the International Space Station
Due to its international nature, the ISS program is more complicated than any other spaceflight endeavors, and each partner is primarily responsible for managing and running the hardware that it provides. The different elements launched from the different countries are not mated together until they reach orbit, and later elements are often not even built until after the first elements are placed in orbit.
The ISS program heavily relies on international cooperation, bringing together international flight crews and communication networks, as well as multiple launch vehicles, globally distributed launch operations, training, engineering, and development facilities, together with the international scientific research community.
International Collaboration Leading to a Brighter Future
The ISS was launched in 1998, involving the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan, and other participants of the European Space Agency. It is the largest space station ever constructed, continuously being assembled in orbit, and is one of the most ambitious international collaborations to ever be attempted.
So far, the station has been visited by astronauts from 18 countries.It was such an honor to be a part of Ax-1 and represent Israel in such a major international collaboration. The more such missions take place, the brighter the future is on Earth and in space. For that reason, I’m excited to watch the legacy continue.