Sources, speaking anonymously to discuss the mission’s crew ahead of its official announcement, said the deal was signed privately earlier this year with Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that organizes and operates private spaceflights of U.S. spacecraft for explorers and tourists.
Under the deal, the two Saudi astronauts will travel on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule to the space station for about a week early next year, the sources said. Saudi Arabia will be the first from its country to go into space aboard a private spacecraft.
Axiom had no immediate comment. Officials from the Saudi Space Commission, Riyadh’s space agency founded in 2018, were not available for comment.
Private U.S. companies are increasingly playing a key role in sending astronauts to the space station as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. space agency currently heavily focused on returning humans to the Moon, looks to commercialize United States manned spaceflight. States. presence in low Earth orbit.
This deal will be the latest, putting companies like Axiom in the unique role of diplomacy that has long been dominated by government agencies like NASA. The space station is a football field-sized laboratory about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth that has housed international crews of astronauts for more than 20 years.
Saudi astronauts will join two previously announced Americans, former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and racing driver and investor John Schoffner, sources said. The mission, called Ax-2, will be the second spaceflight organized by Axiom.
Private astronauts aboard the Ax-2 still need to be approved by a panel chaired by NASA that includes stakeholders and countries involved in the space station, such as Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency, according to a US official. The official added that the mission is likely to be approved.
For Axiom and other space companies, making deals with foreign governments is considered vital to maintaining a business focused on sending people into space. Sending people into space is a luxury for wealthy adventurers and a source of national prestige and inspiration for aspiring space powers like Saudi Arabia.
Axiom launched its first private mission to the space station in April, sending a crew of four aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which included a Canadian investor and an Israeli businessman, to the space station.
And Axiom on Monday announced a deal with Turkey to launch the country’s first two astronauts into space in late 2023. According to a person familiar with the flight, this would likely be for the Ax-3 mission.
Axiom’s astronaut business is critical to the company’s broader goals of deploying its own private space station by mid-decade. It plans to first attach the modules to the ISS and then spin off into a fully private entity after the existing international laboratory is decommissioned around 2030.
The meaning of the Axiom agreement with Saudi Arabia was unclear. Each Crew Dragon seat on the first Axiom mission was sold for $55 million each.