Two NASA astronauts just completed a six-hour spacewalk outside the International Space Station (ISS) to install a parking spot for upcoming commercial space taxis, which will end U.S. reliance on Russia for rides to the orbiting outpost, according to Reuters. Since grounding the shuttle fleet in 2011, the United States has been dependent on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, at a cost of more than $70 million per person.
During the spacewalk, the astronauts attached an adapter onto the shuttle’s docking port that will allow commercial space taxis under development by Boeing and SpaceX to park at the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth. California-based SpaceX plans to begin test flights of its new passenger Dragon capsule to the station in 2017. Boeing’s debut flight of its CST-100 Starliner capsule is expected in 2018.
NASA had hoped to have the first of two new docking ports installed last year, but the equipment was destroyed during a SpaceX cargo ship launch accident in June 2015. A replacement docking port is under construction and expected to be delivered to the station in early 2018.
Space.com reports NASA has ordered a second crewed mission to the ISS from SpaceX, which will provide the orbital service using its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. The order is the fourth and last guaranteed one that NASA will make under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts the agency signed with SpaceX and Boeing. However, NASA has said it envisions using one or both of these companies’ private space taxis for years to come. Each company’s current deal allows for a potential maximum of six crewed flights.
The uncrewed version of Dragon already flies to the ISS, under a separate cargo contract that SpaceX holds with NASA. SpaceX met the criteria for the second CCtCap flight after meeting developmental milestones and completing design reviews for Crew Dragon, the Falcon 9 and associated ground systems, NASA officials said.
“We appreciate the trust NASA has placed in SpaceX with the order of another crew mission and look forward to flying astronauts from American soil next year,” said SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell. Back in January 2015, Shotwell said that the company will fly more than 50 Falcon 9 missions, including a demo mission without a crew and an in-flight ejection test, prior to putting a crew on the vehicle.
More than a year later SpaceX still has some ways to go to meet those numbers, but the company is persistent, writing, “In 2017, Crew Dragon, the crew-carrying version of the upgraded Dragon 2 spacecraft, will restore the United States’ capability to fly humans to orbit.”
According to Phys.org, the next generation of America’s human spaceships is rapidly taking shape at the Kennedy Space Center as Boeing and NASA recently showcased the start of assembly of the first flightworthy version of the Starliner crew taxi to the media. Starliner will ferry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS by early 2018.
“We are making fantastic progress across the board,” explained John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs, at the July 26 media event in Boeing’s new Starliner factory. “It so nice to move from design to firm configuration, which was an incredibly important milestone, to now moving into the integrated qual phase of the campaign.”
“We are on track to support launch by the end of 2017 [of the uncrewed orbital test flight],” stated Mulholland. Starliner is being manufactured in what is officially known as Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida under contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Altogether Boeing is fabricating three Starliner flight spacecraft. Spacecraft 1 is underway. The building of Spacecraft 2 will begin in the Fall and Spacecraft 3 will start early in 2017.
NASA hasn’t yet announced which company will fly crews to the station first. Whether it is Boeing or SpaceX, providing the U.S. with the capability to transport its own crews to the station again will be a momentous milestone since it will restore American autonomy for space orbit.
(Photo: Dragon V2 by NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis [Public domain])