Exclusive: Saudi Arabia buys a pair of SpaceX astronaut seats from Axiom Sources

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PARIS (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia plans to send two astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Elon Musk’s SpaceX capsule, becoming the latest Gulf country to strengthen ties with private US space companies, according to three people familiar with the matter. arrangement.

The sources, who spoke anonymously to discussing the mission’s crew before its official announcement, said the deal was privately signed earlier this year with Houston’s Axiom Space, which organizes and operates special missions to space on a US spacecraft for researchers and tourists. .

The sources said that under the agreement, two Saudi astronauts will ride the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule to the space station for about a week early next year. The Saudis will be the first to go from their country into space aboard a private spacecraft.

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Axiom had no immediate comment. Officials at the Saudi Space Authority, the Riyadh space agency established in 2018, were not immediately available for comment.

Private US companies have played an increasingly major role in sending astronauts to the space station, as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the US space agency now largely focused on returning humans to the moon, has been looking to commercialize human spaceflight in the US for decades. Being in low Earth orbit.

The deal will be the latest to put companies like Acxiom in a unique role of diplomacy that has long been dominated by government agencies like NASA. The space station is a laboratory the size of a football field 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth that has housed international crews of astronauts for more than 20 years.

The sources said the Saudi astronauts will join two previously announced Americans, retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and race car driver and investor John Schofner. The mission, called Ax-2, will be the second spaceflight organized by Axiom.

A US official said the private astronauts aboard the Ax-2 have not yet been approved by a NASA-chaired panel of stakeholders and countries involved in the space station, such as Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency. The official added that the mission is likely to get approval.

For Axiom and other space companies, doing deals with foreign governments is seen as vital to keeping businesses focused on putting people in space. Putting people in space is a luxury for wealthy adventure seekers and a source of national prestige and inspiration for ambitious space powers like Saudi Arabia.

Axiom launched its first special mission to the space station in April, sending a crew of four to the space station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that included a Canadian investor and an Israeli businessman.

On Monday, Axiom announced a deal with Turkey to launch the country’s first astronaut into space in late 2023. That will likely be for the Ax-3 mission, according to a person familiar with the flight.

Axiom’s astronaut flight business is an important experiment to achieve the company’s broader goals of deploying its own space station by mid-decade. It plans first to attach modules to the International Space Station before splitting into an entirely private structure once the current international laboratory is retired by 2030.

The value of the Saudi Axiom agreement was not clear. Each Crew Dragon seat on the first Axiom mission sold for $55 million per seat.

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(Reporting by Joe Rowlett) Editing by Ben Klayman

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