Saudi astronauts, including the nation's first woman in space, will dock at the International Space Station on a 10-day mission

Saudi Arabia's first astronauts in decades have rocketed toward the International Space Station on a chartered multi-million-dollar flight.

Key points: Rayyanah Barnawi is the first woman from Saudi Arabia to go to space
The two Saudi astronauts are the first from the country to visit space since 1985
In recent years NASA has softened its stance on space tourism.

SpaceX launched the ticket-holding crew, led by a retired NASA astronaut now working for the company that arranged the trip. Also on board: a US businessman who now owns a sports car racing team.

After the four reach the space station in their capsule, they will spend just over a week there before returning home with a splashdown off the Florida coast.

Sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government, Rayyanah Barnawi, a stem cell researcher, became the first woman from the kingdom to go to space.

She was joined by Ali al-Qarni, a fighter pilot with the Royal Saudi Air Force.

They're the first from their country to ride a rocket since a Saudi prince launched aboard shuttle Discovery in 1985. In a quirk of timing, they will be greeted at the station by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates."This is a dream come true for everyone," Ms Barnawi said before the flight. "Just being able to understand that this is possible. If me and Ali can do it, then they can do it, too."

Rounding out the visiting crew: Knoxville, Tennessee's John Shoffner, former driver and owner of a sports car racing team that competes in Europe, and chaperone Peggy Whitson, the station's first female commander who holds the US record for most accumulated time in space: 665 days and counting.

A team led by Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin wins a coveted $5.1 billion NASA contract to build a spacecraft to fly astronauts to the Moon's surface.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at the Kennedy Space Center.(AP: Terry Renna)

It is the second private flight to the space station organised by Houston-based Axiom Space.

The first was last year by three businessmen, with another retired NASA astronaut.

The company plans to start adding its own rooms to the station in another few years, eventually removing them to form a stand-alone outpost available for hire.

Axiom will not say how much Mr Shoffner and Saudi Arabia are paying for the planned 10-day mission. The company had previously cited a ticket price of $US55 million ($83 million) each.

The guests will have access to most of the station as they conduct experiments, photograph Earth, and chat with schoolchildren back home, demonstrating how kites fly in space when attached to a fan.

After decades of shunning space tourism, NASA now embraces it with two private missions planned a year.

The Russian Space Agency has been doing it, off and on, for decades.

"Our job is to expand what we do in low-Earth orbit across the globe," said NASA's space station program manager Joel Montalbano.

Source: AP