Every day that becomes clearer There isn’t just one space race between the United States and China to see which of the two superpowers manages to colonize and extract mineral resources from the moon and control space.
Facts show that another competition has also been sparked in space travel, peacefully pitting the regional and oil-producing powers of the Middle East against each other to have a presence in space and especially to send women into the circle of Earth. The dispute was noted during the International Astronautical Congress, held September 19-22 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 enlisted the services of a private company that, for a fee, will transport their nationals into Earth orbit, hold them aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for a short time, and return them to our blue planet.
The only company authorized and certified by NASA to perform these tasks is Axiom Space, which signed an agreement with the Saudi Space Commission on September 22. The terms of the contract stipulate that a man and a woman from the Gulf State will fly to the ISS in a manned SpaceX Dragon capsule 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 the Chairman of the SpaceX Commission Abdullah bin Amer al-Swaha and Founder and CEO of Axiom Michael Suffredini. Suffredini and his venture capital partner Kamal Ghaffarian founded Axiom in 2016 with the intention of docking several commercial modules to the ISS starting in 2024 and later building the first commercial space station.
President Erdogan wants to see the Turks in orbit as soon as possible
But as Axiom’s project materializes, the liberalization of access to space mandated by the United States allows companies to encourage private flights to and from the International Orbital Complex to transport researchers and tourists who can pay between them $55 and $60 million per seat occupied.
The looming deal draws on the experience of Suffredinia distinguished retired NASA engineer whose 35-year career with the agency began in 1989 and ended in late 2015 after spending a decade — from 2005 until his retirement — as the ISS program manager, responsible for design, assembly, operations and use of the largest orbital complex ever built.
Michael Suffredini and Axiom will be commissioned by the Saudi Space Commission, a government agency established on December 27, 2018, reporting directly to the Prime Minister, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud. Its main function corresponds to a space agency and consists of planning and developing strategies and programs related to the sector and implementing the national space strategy.
But Saudi Arabia isn’t the only nation that has solicited a trip to the ISS with Suffredini. On September 19 in Paris, a few days before the pact with Riyadh, Axiom had also reached a compromise with the one Turkish Space Agency (TUA) – established on December 13, 2018, 9 days before the Saudi one – to carry a pair of Turkish astronauts to another future mission of the American company. Their flight could be the not-yet-NASA-certified Ax-3, which would not launch until late 2023 at the earliest.
TUA chairman Serdar Huseyin Yildirim, a 61-year-old aeronautical engineer, said the treaty was part of Ottoman land “ambitious 10-year space roadmap”which includes “Missions to low earth orbit, to the moon, and the development of civil and military dual-use communications and observation satellites”he said.
The pre-selection process for the astronauts begins
Axiom’s services also include the training of Saudi and Turkish astronauts selected by the authorities of both countries. There will be at least four people at a time, as main and reserve teams from each country must be trained together.
Instructors from the training department of the US company – former NASA astronauts – take over the training which allow the Saudis and Turks to travel, live and research and work in microgravity conditions.
The Turkish astronaut selection process is being conducted 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, responsibility for selection rests with its space commission. It is worth remembering that the kingdom had its first astronaut 37 years ago. It was Prince Sultan bin Salman al-Saud who flew with five American astronauts and one Frenchman on the STS-51G mission of the shuttle Discovery in June 1985.
Axiom has already flown a first private mission to the ISS. It was Ax-1, which took off on April 8th and returned on April 25th. Its commander was a retired NASA astronaut, 64-year-old Hispanic-American Michael Lopez-Alegria. He was accompanied by three businessmen, an Israeli, a Canadian and an American.
For Axiom’s second mission, classified as Ax-2 but awaiting final NASA approval and data assignment, the selected commander is an experienced astronaut Peggy Whitson, also retired from NASA. The 62-year-old biochemist 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.