International space station welcomes 2 Saudi visitors, including kingdom's 1st female astronaut

The International Space Station rolled out the welcome mat Monday for two Saudi visitors, including the kingdom's first female astronaut.

SpaceX's chartered flight arrived at the orbiting lab less than 16 hours after blasting off from Florida. The four guests will spend just over a week there, before returning to Earth in their capsule.

The crew of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Crew Dragon spacecraft, from left, Saudi Arabian astronaut Rayyanah Barnawi, commandeer Peggy Whitson, pilot John Shoffner and Saudi Arabian astronaut Ali al-Qarni arrive at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., before their launch to the International Space Station, Sunday, May 21, 2023. (Photo: AP)

The 270-mile-high (430-kilometer-high) docking puts the space station population at 11, representing not only Saudi Arabia and the US, but the United Arab Emirates and Russia.

Saudi Arabia's government is picking up the multimillion-dollar tab for its first female astronaut, Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher, and fighter pilot Ali al-Qarni.

John Shoffner, a Knoxville, Tennessee, businessman who started a car racing team, is paying his own way. Retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is their chaperone. She now works for Axiom Space, the Houston company that organized the 10-day trip, its second to the space station.

The company cited ticket prices of $55 million each for last year's private trip by three businessmen, but won't say how much the latest seats cost.

Only one other Saudi has flown before in space, a prince who rode on NASA's shuttle Discovery in 1985.