Rayyanah Barnawi is slowly being rolled out of the space capsule, two women are helping her to her feet, she still seems a little unsure. But then the young woman is finally back on solid ground on Thursday, waves at the camera, thumbs up. The Saudi Arabian spent ten days in space on the International Space Station (ISS) spent. The biomedical scientist is not only the first Saudi Arabian in space, but also the first Arab ever.
The 34-year-old was part of a completely private mission organized by space company Axiom Space, in partnership with NASA and SpaceX. The crew of four started on board a Dragonscapsule from the Cape Canaveral Cosmodrome in the US state of Florida. According to media reports, the passengers each paid around 50 million euros for the trip.
Barnawi has built up a large fan base in her home country
Rayyanah Barnawi has worked as a stem cell researcher in Saudi Arabia for the past nine years. Before that, she studied biomedicine in New Zealand and then completed her master’s degree in her home country. It was her passion for experiments and scientific research that motivated her to apply as an astronaut for the Saudi National Astronaut Program, she said in interviews. Her goal: to advance her research on stem cells and breast cancer in the weightless environment.
In Saudi Arabia, Rayyanah Barnawi is now celebrated as a folk heroine, hashtag: Saudi Arabia Towards Space. Her fan base keeps her happy with numerous tweets. In one picture she taps her earlobes and sends greetings to her grandmother in Saudi Arabia, her earrings have made it into space.
But above all, Barnawi wants to inspire children and young people in her home country for space. Once she shares Fan mail from schoolgirls from homewith the comment: “We have a great responsibility to inspire the next generation of women. (…) We live in a country that does not know the impossible. Dreams and strives for more … and God willing, you will achieve it.”
Just a few years ago, the astronaut would not even have been allowed to drive to the nearest supermarket
What also runs like a red thread through her Twitter timeline: her thanks to the Saudi King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “the leader who carries all our hopes, our thoughts and visions”, as Barnawi put it. She owes it to them that she can take part in this mission and thus serve humanity. That’s official Program related to Vision 2030, the prestige project of Mohammed bin Salman, who wants to prepare the Saudi economy for a post-oil era. “My family and my brothers and sisters in the Kingdom: Heaven is no limit to our ambition. It is only the beginning”, she tweets.
Just a few years ago, Rayyanah Barnawi’s journey would have been impossible. At that time, the young woman was not even allowed to drive to the nearest supermarket in her home country. Only since 2018 women are allowed to drive in once ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia. Even if young people in the kingdom now enjoy much more freedom in everyday life, the ruling family still does not like freedom of expression to this day. It wasn’t until 2022 critical women’s rights activists sentenced to draconian long prison terms.
For Saudi Arabia, Rayyanah Barnawi’s voyage was not the first (albeit the most publicized) voyage into space. In 1985, the prince and fighter pilot Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz took part in a US-organized space mission.