In a deal with Axiom, Saudi Arabia purchased a pair of SpaceX astronaut seats

It will be the first Gulf nation to strengthen ties with private U.S. space companies, as Saudi Arabia will launch two astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Elon Musk’s SpaceX capsule, according to three sources.

An anonymous source said the contract was signed privately with Houston’s Axiom Space earlier this year, which arranges and manages private missions on U.S. spacecraft for tourists and researchers.

According to the sources, two Saudi astronauts will ride SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to the space station early next year for a roughly weeklong stay. Saudi Arabia will be the first country from their region to launch a private spacecraft into space.

There was no immediate comment from Axiom. As of Monday afternoon, there was no immediate comment from Saudi Space Commission officials, Riyadh’s space agency founded in 2018.

As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. space agency that is focusing heavily on returning humans to the moon, looks to commercialize the United States’ decades-old presence in low-Earth orbit, private companies are increasingly taking on a key role in sending astronauts to the space station.

As a result of the deal, companies like Axiom are now playing a role in diplomacy that was long dominated by government agencies like NASA. Over the past 20 years, the space station has housed international crews of astronauts in a football field-sized laboratory some 250 miles above Earth.

According to sources, the Saudi astronauts will join two Americans already announced, retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and race car driver and investor John Shoffner. It will be Axiom’s second spaceflight, called Ax-2.

U.S. official says a NASA-chaired panel of stakeholders and countries involved in the space station, such as Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency, must approve the private astronauts. There is a good chance that the mission will be approved, according to the official.

Deals with foreign governments are crucial to Axiom and other space companies for sustaining a business that puts people in space. People going to space is a luxury for wealthy adventurers and a source of national prestige and inspiration for states that are aspiring to become space powers.

SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule was sent to the space station by Axiom in April with a four-member crew, including a Canadian investor and an Israeli businessman.

The company also announced Monday that it would launch Turkey’s first two astronauts into space in late 2023 as part of a deal with Axiom. An individual familiar with the flight says it will probably be for mission Ax-3.

As the company plans to deploy its own private space station by mid-decade, Axiom’s astronaut flight business is crucial experience. In 2030, it plans to attach modules to the International Space Station before splitting off into a fully private organization.

Axiom’s Saudi agreement was unclear in terms of value. Crew Dragon seats on Axiom’s first mission sold for $55 million each.

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