First Arab woman astronaut reaches space station

Rayyanah Barnawi’s flight to stardom follows the lifting of some Saudi restrictions on women, but others remain in force

The first Muslim and Arab woman astronaut docked at the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday on a 10-day mission. Rayyanah Barnawi (33), a cancer researcher, and male colleague Ali al-Qarni (31), a fighter pilot, are the second and third Saudis to venture into space.

The first was Prince Sultan bin Salman, a Saudi air force pilot who flew aboard the United States space shuttle Discovery in 1985 and became the first Muslim, Arab, and Saudi to enter space. Mr bin Salman is a half-brother of the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

As they orbited the earth, Ms Barnawi said, “To the people around the world, the future is very bright. I would like you to dream big, believe in yourselves and believe in humanity.”

Mr Qarni said: “As I look out into space, I cannot help but think that this is just the beginning of a great journey for all of us.”


The Saudis were greeted by United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi, who is on a six-month mission. He achieved another record by being the first Arab to spacewalk. He and US engineer Stephen Bowen spent seven hours carrying out repairs outside the ISS.

The Saudis will conduct 20 experiments, including research into predicting and preventing cancer and generating artificial rain for possible human settlements on the moon and Mars. They plan to chat with schoolchildren and see if kites fly in zero gravity when propelled by a fan.

The commercial mission took off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday from Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The capsule, named Dragon Freedom, is commanded by US veteran astronaut Peggy Witson, and piloted by businessman John Schoffner. The mission was organised by Houston-based Axiom Space. The ticket cost $55 million (€51 million) per passenger for Axiom’s initial effort.

Ms Barnawi broke earthly barriers before making the journey. She overcame ultraconservative Saudi restrictions on women by earning degrees in biomedical sciences from Saudi and New Zealand universities.

Last year she completed training in Saudi Arabia to prepare herself for zero-gravity and diminished oxygen.

Her flight to stardom followed the lifting of some Saudi restrictions on women who can drive, attend sports matches and obtain passports and travel without male intervention. However, on March 8th, 2022, the kingdom codified a personal status law which leaves women under male guardianship in marriage and divorce and denies women equality with men in many spheres. Campaigners for an end to guardianship have been imprisoned.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times