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Saudi Rayyanah Barnawi, Arab World’s First Female Astronaut Reflects On Her Journey

One year following her mission to space, the Arab world’s first female astronaut, Saudi Rayyanah Barnawi, reflects on the great duty that begins now that she’s back on the ground.

Arab World’s First Female Astronaut

Photo: Alamy

Our rocket launched on May 21, 2023, and the mission to space lasted 10 days. I think it took 15 hours and nine minutes to travel to the International Space Station and a little less coming back. The mission itself was a scientific one, so the agency was looking for candidates with a science or research background. At the time, I was working at King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Centre, conducting research in stem cell and tissue reengineering, along with breast cancer stem cell research.

I thought I was in heaven, and then I was asked to go and conduct that same work in the most expensive lab in the world, above the skies. Of course, I said yes. I remember when I got the call from the Saudi Space Agency (formerly the Saudi Space Commission) saying I’d been selected from the first batch of astronauts to go and train in Houston. I was stunned. I was wearing my lab coat getting ready to go to work, but when I received the call, I wanted to take leave and return home to Jeddah to tell my grandmother and my parents that I would be leaving. There are scientists who work on these projects for years and years before being selected to go to the International Space Station. Being able to conduct these experiments and influence the patients and their care in Riyadh, or Saudi Arabia, and being able to pave the way for other scientists worldwide, is to be able to help humanity on a larger scale.

Arab World’s First Female Astronaut

Photo: Getty Images

Being the first Arab female astronaut comes with a lot of responsibility. Whenever I meet parents talking about their children, saying, ‘We want our kids to be like you,’ it makes my heart feel full, but at the same time, it brings a lot of responsibility towards what I have to give back to society. Personally, I feel very proud to be able to represent my country’s ambition and mission, especially in the space sector. I am just one of many accomplished and successful women here in Saudi Arabia; in the health, political, and investment arenas as well, we hear many shiny names coming from Saudi, and I am very humbled and honored to be a part of that.

Arab World’s First Female Astronaut

The Axiom Ax-2 Prime crew members, from left to right: John Shoffner, Rayyanah Barnawi, Peggy Whitson, and Ali Alqarni. Photo: Alamy

A sentence that my mother taught me is that you must be ready whenever chances or opportunities present themselves, because if you only start getting ready when you see these opportunities, then you are already late. When I think about it, one or two years ago, if you’d have told me that I would be going to space, I wouldn’t have believed it. But at the same time, you work hard to build your skills towards achieving this; you work hard on establishing your scientific background, on staying in shape, working and developing the expeditionary skills required, and being able to operate as a team player, because you never know what the future holds. I think the actual duty of an astronaut starts when they return home after the mission. They are here to spread awareness, to transfer the technology, and share the knowledge that they have gained throughout their training

period and time in space. An important part of that duty could simply be the overview effect of seeing the Earth from the outside, and feeling the intense emotions this takes you through, to make you think, ‘I need to do more to protect our home planet,’ and maybe one day everyone else will do the same. I remember when I met our Commander Peggy Whitson when training in Houston, and I always heard her talking about the overview effect. I now know what she was talking about because every astronaut has their own point of view of how they describe their feelings when they see Earth; you see all the borders, you see the clouds looking like little cotton candy over the ocean, you’re able to see lights when it’s night. You see the sunrise and sunset some 16 times a day, which by itself is miraculous. Honestly, the feeling that I have is, ‘When are we going back to space?’ This is what I keep thinking about, always.

We have just completed one year since the mission and we had the pleasure of honoring all the scientists who worked extremely hard on their research, trusting us with it in space. We are happy to hear that they are on the way to publishing some of their findings, having analyzed the experiments that we conducted. When we talk about research, we think of it as a whole puzzle, so every little bit of information that any research would provide is helping to solve one piece of that puzzle at a time, and any contribution in the stem cell field is a valid and important one, whether to validate the existence or the absence of specific proteins, functions, or genes. I am very excited to see the first publication to come from the research that we conducted in space.

The space sector is part of the 2030 Vision, which has its own national space strategy (yet to be announced), and part of the strategy are human space flight missions, which is how we were selected. It is fair to say that this is a sustainable program that will likely have a larger core team of Saudi astronauts, inshallah. Currently we have four qualified Saudi astronauts, two women and two men: Ali AlGhamdi, Ali AlQarni, Mariam Fardous, and myself. And we are ready, inshallah, for any upcoming missions. By 2030, there are lots of key points to make, and us going to space was part of that mission and we conducted a lot of research to be able to at least contribute scientifically to humanity. Being able to do what I love the most, which is research onboard the International Space Station, and link that to the younger generation, paves the way for them and helps them understand that dreams do come true.”
Originally published in the June 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

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