A private rocket carrying the first Arab woman astronaut has blasted off on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
Rayyanah Barnawi, a breast cancer researcher from Saudi Arabia, was joined on Sunday’s mission by fellow Saudi Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot.
The pair are the first Saudi astronauts to voyage into space in decades.
They took off on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in the southern United States at 5:37pm local time (21:37 GMT).
The team also includes Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who will be making her fourth flight to the ISS, and John Shoffner, a businessman from Tennessee who is serving as pilot.
The four should reach the space station in their capsule on Monday morning and will spend just over a week there before returning home with a splashdown off the coast of the southern US state of Florida.
“Hello from outer space! It feels amazing to be viewing Earth from this capsule,” Barnawi said after settling into orbit.
Sponsored by the Saudi government, Barnawi had said earlier that it was “a great pleasure and honour” to be the first Saudi woman astronaut to voyage into space.
Aside from excitement for the research she will carry out on board, she said she was looking forward to sharing her experience with children while on the ISS. “Being able to see their faces when they see astronauts from their own region for the first time is very thrilling,” she said.
A career fighter pilot, al-Qarni said he has “always had the passion of exploring the unknown and just admiring the sky and the stars”.
“It is a great opportunity for me to pursue this kind of passion that I have, and now maybe just fly among the stars,” he said.
The pair are the first from their country to ride a rocket since a Saudi prince travelled on board the space shuttle Discovery in 1985. In a quirk of timing, they will be greeted at the station by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates.
The mission is the second private flight to the space station organised by Houston-based Axiom Space.
The first was last year by three businessmen, with another retired NASA astronaut. The company plans to start adding its own rooms to the station in another few years, eventually removing them to form a stand-alone outpost available for hire.
Axiom would not say how much Saudi Arabia and Shoffner, the Tennessee businessman, are paying for the planned 10-day mission. The company had previously cited a ticket price of $55m each.
After decades of shunning space tourism, NASA now embraces it with two private missions planned yearly. The Russian Space Agency has been doing it, off and on, for decades.
“Our job is to expand what we do in low-Earth orbit across the globe,” said NASA’s space station programme manager Joel Montalbano.
SpaceX’s first-stage booster landed back at Cape Canaveral eight minutes after liftoff — a special treat for the launch day crowd, which included about 60
“It was a very, very exciting day,” said Axiom’s Matt Ondler.