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Meet Rayyanah Barnawi, Saudi Arabia's first female astronaut to go to space

Rayyanah Barnawi said she’ll be taking Arabic coffee with her to drink aboard the International Space Station, teaching children, and practicing zero-gravity space flips with her colleagues.
Rayyanah Barnawi

Rayyanah Barnawi is set to break multiple barriers and make history on Sunday, as she becomes the first Saudi woman to travel to low-Earth orbit, and land on the International Space Station (ISS). 

She follows in the record-making footsteps of the first Saudi astronaut, nearly 40 years ago. In 1985, Sultan bin Salman became the first Saudi Arabian, Arab, Muslim and also royal to visit space, according to the House of Saud royal website. 

Barnawi, a biochemist with almost a decade of experience in cancer stem cell research, is set to operate as a mission specialist on the commercial space agency Axiom Space’s Mission 2 to conduct stem cell and breast cancer experiments on the ISS. 

The 33-year-old will be taking Arabic coffee on her expected May 21 launch to drink aboard the ISS, and one of her favorite parts of this mission is teaching kids. Barnawi said she plans to practice zero-gravity space flips with colleagues on her eight-day flight. 

Barnawi, a career scientist and researcher, earned a master of biomedical sciences from Alfaisal University in Saudi Arabia, and a bachelor of biomedical sciences from Otago University in New Zealand, according to her Axiom Space profile. 

“In particular, I’m very excited for the RNA response experiment where we’ll be culturing immune cells for the first time in history on the International Space Station,” she said, describing an experiment procedure that originated from her home country during an Axiom Space streaming interview five days ahead of the Sunday launch. 

“Every experiment that involves a glove box (a sealed environment for handling hazardous materials that react with air) makes me feel at home,” said Barnawi, who worked for nine years as a lab technician for the Stem Cell and Tissue Re-engineering Program at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh. She will also be conducting research in partnership with biomedical research hub Cedar Sinai. 

“I’ve been that explorer that likes to look for answers,” Barnawi said. She has scuba dived the depths of the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia and also the waters of Indonesia. She has hiked and rafted adventures in New Zealand and Turkey. Barnawi is also a hang glider and a mountain climbing ledge swinger. Last year, she did centrifuge and hypoxic training in Saudi Arabia, which is used to familiarize the human body with the symptoms of zero-gravity and higher altitudes with less oxygen. 

A major part of Barnawi’s expedition will involve conducting experiments with children on Earth. She said that along with fellow Saudi astronaut and mission specialist Ali Al Qarni, they will conduct at least 20 experiments, of which 14 will be led by Saudi Arabian scientists on the ground. 

“We are here as STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) educators for the kids to be attached to math and science and technology to know that they can do more and trust themselves, is one of the goals of this mission,” she said. One of the Saudi Space Commission’s goals is to develop interest in space and train personnel for space flight. 

Among these experiments will be flying a kite in space and on Earth to compare the difference, in addition to heat transfer experiments conveying the same gravitational effects. 

Barnawi said, most importantly, that she wants young Saudis and Arabs to “see astronauts from the region for the first time,” and to show them that Arab men and women can achieve their space aspirations. 

“One night we were supposed to wake up a little bit early to watch the ISS fly over, to me, that was the moment that made me realize why I’m here,” she said, as she felt the gravity of her mission. 

This feeling heightened during the announcement of her mission in February from the Saudi government, while she was at a training camp in Houston, Texas. 

“Seeing people from their own region going to space is a great thing for them just to understand that this is possible,” she said. 

One of her greatest advocates is her grandmother, who recently called her. “She said, 'You have my blessing to go to space.' I said, 'Uh, that’s a little late, Sitto (an Arabic word for grandmother). I’m already in quarantine.'”  Her grandmother gave her 60-year-old earrings to take with her that she’ll be carrying along with family photos, and the Saudi flag. 

Barnawi is part of a female-led mission, with former astronaut Peggy Whitson at the helm. Barnawi will join fellow first time astronauts Ali Al Qarni, a Royal Saudi Air Force fighter pilot who will work as a mission specialist, and John Shoffner, an American businessman and lifelong space enthusiast who will serve as a pilot. 

Together, they are Axiom Space’s second-ever private astronaut mission to the ISS, according to the private space agency. Initially set for May 8, the launch on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft atop its Falcon 9 rocket was delayed due to unspecified reasons in an announcement from NASA. The team of four are set to launch on Sunday, May 21, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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