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Space station welcomes 2 Saudi visitors, including kingdom's 1st female astronaut

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The International Space Station rolled out the welcome mat Monday for two Saudi visitors, including the kingdom's first female astronaut.

SpaceX's chartered flight arrived at the orbiting lab less than 16 hours after blasting off from Florida. The four guests will spend just over a week there, before returning to Earth in their capsule.

The 270-mile-high (430-kilometer-high) docking puts the space station population at 11, representing not only Saudi Arabia and the U.S., but the United Arab Emirates and Russia.

UAE's astronaut Sultan al-Neyadi greeted them with dates, a traditional Arab welcome.

“This shows how space brings everyone together,” said Saudi Arabia's first female astronaut, Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher. “I'm going to live this experience to the max.”

Saudi fighter pilot Ali al-Qarni dedicated the visit to everyone back home. “This mission is not just for me and Rayyanah. This mission is also for the people with ambition and dreams.”

The Saudi government is picking up the multimillion-dollar tab for both of them.

John Shoffner, a Knoxville, Tennessee, businessman who started a sports car racing team, is paying his own way. Retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson is their chaperone. She now works for Axiom Space, the Houston company that organized the 10-day trip, its second to the space station.

The company cited ticket prices of $55 million each for last year's private trip by three businessmen, but won't say how much the latest seats cost.

Only one other Saudi has flown before in space, a prince who rode on NASA's shuttle Discovery in 1985.

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