Two American astronauts, Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins, will exit the International Space Station on Friday to install a specialized parking spot for the new generation of private spaceships expected to visit the station in years to come.
The Boeing-built, circular docking adapter is just 42 inches tall and 63 inches wide. It’s customized to fit with Boeing’s CST-100 Starline and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, both of which are being built to carry astronauts to the ISS in the next few years.
NASA calls the installation “a metaphorical gateway to the future.” Kenneth Todd, ISS operations integration manager, considers the equipment a “very significant milestone on the path to establishing commercial crew capability.”
The adapter’s upgrades include an automatic parking system and fittings that allow the ISS and the spacecraft to share data and power.
Williams will be embarking on his fourth extravehicular (EV) activity, and Rubins will be making her first. This is also the first time the EV astronauts will receive a “handoff” of equipment from the space station’s robotic arm, the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM).
“We have to be very careful about putting loads into the SPDM,” Glenda Brown, lead spacewalk officer, said at a news conference. “In space, it has got a lot of capability, but on the ground it can barely support its own weight.”
Spacewalks have additional risks. Last year, an EV crew attempted but failed to maneuver a thermal radiator outside the ISS. Another crew will make a spacewalk in two weeks to complete that mission.
And an American astronaut’s spacesuit was apparently allowing water to collect inside the helmet in January. When the suit was returned to Earth for testing, engineers discovered a flaw in a device that regulates the suit’s condensation.
“We are still learning how to use this suit and how to care for them in a zero-gravity environment — and it is not the same as what we do on the ground,” Todd said.