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Saudi Arabia and Turkey compete to get a woman astronaut into orbit as soon as possible

Ankara and Riyadh engage the services of the same US company to travel privately to the International Space Station
PHOTO/NASA

PHOTO/NASA  -   Saudi Arabia wants to have its first female astronaut in orbit by 2023. Prince Sultan bin Salman al-Saud already flew in June 1985 on NASA's shuttle Discovery with five Americans and a Frenchman

With each passing day it becomes more evident that there is not only a space race between the United States and China to see which of the two superpowers manages to colonise and extract mineral resources from the Moon and control outer space.

The facts show that another competition has also been triggered in the space arena, which peacefully pits the regional and oil-producing powers of the Near and Middle East against each other to be present in outer space and, in particular, to send women to circle the Earth. The dispute was noted during the International Astronautical Congress held from 19-22 September in Paris.

In the French capital, senior executives from the space agencies of Saudi Arabia and Turkey made the most of their presence at the world's largest space science and technology event. In both cases, they have contracted the services of a private company that, for a fee, can transport their nationals into Earth orbit, keep them for a short time aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and bring them back to our blue planet.

PHOTO/SSC - El presidente ejecutivo de Axiom, Michael Suffredini (izquierda), acordó con el presidente de la Comisión Espacial Saudí, Abdullah bin Amer al-Swahha (al fondo) llevar a un hombre y una mujer del país del Golfo a la ISS
PHOTO/SSC - Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini (left) agrees with Saudi Space Commission Chairman Abdullah bin Amer al-Swahha (background) to fly a man and a woman from the Gulf country to the ISS

The only company authorised and certified by NASA to carry out these tasks is Axiom Space, which on 22 September signed an agreement with the Saudi Space Commission. The terms of the contract are to organise and materialise a man and woman from the Gulf country to fly in a manned SpaceX Dragon capsule to the ISS in the second quarter of 2023 at the earliest, stay on board for one to two weeks and make the return journey.

The agreement was signed in the presence of SpaceX Commission Chairman Abdullah bin Amer al-Swahha and Axiom founder and CEO Michael Suffredini. Suffredini and his venture capitalist partner Kamal Ghaffarian established Axiom in 2016 with the intention of docking several commercial modules to the ISS from 2024 and, later, building the first commercial space station.

PHOTO/NASA - Jubilada de la NASA y con tres misiones espaciales en su haber, la astronauta Peggy Whitson, de 62 años, será la comandante de la misión Ax-2 que, salvo incidencias, debe llevar a dos saudíes al complejo orbital internacional
PHOTO/NASA - Retired from NASA and with three space missions under her belt, astronaut Peggy Whitson, 62, will be the commander of the Ax-2 mission, which, barring unforeseen circumstances, is due to take two Saudis to the international orbital complex
President Erdogan wants to see Turks in orbit as soon as possible

But while Axiom's project is being realised, the liberalisation of access to space decreed by the United States allows companies to promote private flights to and from the international orbital complex to transport researchers and tourists who can pay between 55 and 60 million dollars per seat occupied.

The looming deal draws on the experience of Suffredini, a prestigious retired NASA engineer whose 35-year career at the Agency began in 1989 and ended in late 2015, having served for a decade - from 2005 until his retirement - as ISS programme manager, responsible for the design, assembly, operation and utilisation of the largest orbital complex ever built.

Michael Suffredini and Axiom are entrusted by the Saudi Space Commission, a government agency created on 27 December 2018 and reporting directly to the Prime Minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud. Equivalent to a space agency, its main function is to plan and develop policies and programmes related to the sector and to implement the National Space Strategy.

PHOTO/Axiom Space - El responsable de Axiom, Michael Suffredini, y el viceministro de Industria y Tecnología de Turquía, Mehmet Fatih Kacír, sostienen los documentos recién firmados para transportar a dos astronautas turcos a la ISS
PHOTO/Axiom Space - Axiom head Michael Suffredini and Turkey's Deputy Minister of Industry and Technology Mehmet Fatih Kacír hold the newly signed documents to transport two Turkish astronauts to the ISS

But Saudi Arabia is not the only nation to have made a bid to travel to the ISS with Suffredini. On 19 September in Paris, a few dates before the pact with Riyadh, Axiom had also reached a compromise with the Turkish Space Agency (TUA) - founded on 13 December 2018, 9 days before the Saudi one - to embark a pair of Turkish astronauts on another future mission of the American company. Their flight could be the Ax-3, which is not yet approved by NASA and which, at the earliest, would take off at the end of 2023.

TUA chairman Serdar Huseyin Yildirim, a 61-year-old aeronautical engineer, said the contract is part of the Ottoman country's "ambitious 10-year space roadmap", which includes "missions to low Earth orbit, to the Moon, as well as the development of dual-use civil and military communications and observation satellites", he said.

PHOTO/Axiom Space - La compañía norteamericana también asume el entrenamiento por separado de los cuatro saudíes y otros tantos turcos seleccionados. Sesión formativa de la misión Ax-1 comandada por López-Alegría, segundo por la izquierda
PHOTO/Axiom Space - The US company also assumes the separate training of the four Saudis and four selected Turkish astronauts. Ax-1 mission training session led by Lopez-Alegria, second from left
Astronaut pre-selection process begins

The services provided by Axiom also include the training of Saudi and Turkish astronauts selected by the authorities of both countries. In each case, there will be a minimum of four people, since the main and reserve crews from each country must be trained together.

Instructors from the US company's training department - former NASA astronauts - will be responsible for providing the training that will enable the Saudis and Turks to travel, live and carry out research and scientific work in microgravity conditions.

PHOTO/NASA - Piloto de caza de la Real Fuerza Aérea Saudí, el príncipe Sultán bin Salman al-Saud fue, a sus 28 años, el primer miembro de una familia real en volar al espacio. Y fue el presidente de la Comisión Espacial Saudí hasta mayo de 2021
PHOTO/NASA - A fighter pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force, Prince Sultan bin Salman al-Saud was, at 28, the first member of a royal family to fly in space. And he was the chairman of the Saudi Space Commission until May 2021

The selection process for the Turkish astronauts is carried out by the Tübitak Space Technology Research Institute in Ankara, with the support of Axiom and under the direction of the Turkish Space Agency on behalf of the Turkish government. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the responsibility for selection rests with its Space Commission. It should be recalled that the Kingdom had its first astronaut 37 years ago. It was Prince Sultan bin Salman al-Saud, who flew on the shuttle Discovery's STS-51G mission in June 1985 with five American astronauts and one Frenchman.

Axiom has already flown a first private mission to the ISS. It was Ax-1, which lifted off on 8 April and returned on 25 April. Its commander was a retired NASA astronaut, 64-year-old Spanish-American Michael Lopez-Alegria. He was joined by three businessmen, one Israeli, one Canadian and one American. 

PHOTO/Axiom Space - Dos saudíes y dos norteamericanos ocuparán las plazas de los cuatro miembros de la misión Ax-1 capitaneada por Michael López-Alegría, con el norteamericano Larry Connor, el canadiense Mark Pathy y el israelí Eytan Stibbe
PHOTO/Axiom Space - Two Saudis and two Americans will take the places of the four members of the Ax-1 mission captained by Michael Lopez-Alegria, with American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe

For Axiom's second mission, classified as Ax-2 but still awaiting final approval by NASA and the assignment of dates, the chosen commander is veteran astronaut Peggy Whitson, also retired from NASA. A 62-year-old biochemist, she has been in space three times, holds the American record for time spent in orbit (665 days and 22 hours) and was the first woman to command the ISS.