SpaceX launches first Saudi astronauts on private flight to space station

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© Joe Raedle, Getty Images via AFP

The second-ever private mission to the International Space Station launched Sunday carrying a Saudi man and woman, the first citizens from their country to travel to the orbiting outpost.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared into the sky from Kennedy Space Center on Florida's east coast on a mission organized by Axiom Space company.

Saudis Rayyanah Barnawi and Ali Al-Qarni are accompanied by two other crew members: former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and American entrepreneur John Shoffner.

The Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) crew took off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in the southern US state of Florida at 5:37 pm (2137 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.

"Thanks for putting your trust in the Falcon 9 team," SpaceX chief enginer Bill Gerstenmaier told the crew minutes after lift-off.

"Hope you enjoyed the ride to space. Have a great trip on Dragon," he added, referring to the spacecraft. "Welcome home to zero-g, Peggy."

The crew is due to spend around 10 days on board the ISS, where they should arrive around 9:25 am Monday.

"Being the first Saudi woman astronaut, representing the region, it's a great pleasure and honor that I'm very happy to carry," said Barnawi at a recent press conference.

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