Exclusive: Saudi Arabia buys pair of SpaceX astronaut seats from Axiom -sources

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PARIS, Sept 20 (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia plans to take two astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a space capsule from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, becoming the latest Gulf nation to strengthen ties with private US space companies, according to three confidants people the arrangement.

The sources, who spoke anonymously to discuss the mission’s crew ahead of its official announcement, said the deal was signed privately earlier this year with Houston’s Axiom Space, which arranges private missions into space on US spacecraft for researchers and tourists and managed.

As part of the deal, two Saudi astronauts will travel to the space station for a stay of about a week on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule early next year, the sources said. The Saudis would be the first from their country to go into space aboard a private spacecraft.

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

U.S. private companies are increasingly playing a key role in sending astronauts to the space station as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. space agency now heavily focused on getting humans back to the Moon, seeks to reverse decades-old United States human spaceflight States to commercialize presence in low earth orbit.

The deal would be the latest, placing companies like Axiom in a unique role of diplomacy long dominated by government agencies like NASA. The space station is a football field-sized laboratory some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth that has hosted international crews of astronauts for over 20 years.

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

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The private astronauts aboard Ax-2 have yet to be approved by a NASA-led panel of stakeholders and countries involved in the space station, including Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency, a US official said. The official added that the mission is likely to be approved.

For Axiom and other space companies, doing business with foreign governments is considered critical to sustaining a business focused on getting people into space. Taking people into space is a luxury for wealthy adventurers and a source of national prestige and inspiration for emerging space powers like Saudi Arabia.

Axiom launched its first private 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.

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And Axiom on Monday announced a deal with Turkey to launch the country’s first two astronauts in late 2023. According to a person familiar with the flight, this will likely be for the Ax-3 mission.

Axiom’s astronaut flight business is a pivotal experience in the company’s broader goals of deploying its own private space station by mid-decade. It plans to initially attach modules to the ISS before splitting into a fully private structure once the existing international laboratory is retired around 2030.

The value of Axiom’s Saudi deal was not clear. Each Crew Dragon seat on Axiom’s first mission sold for $55 million each.

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Reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by Ben Klayman

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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