Astronauts from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will conduct a few spacewalks to reconfigure the International Space Station (ISS) for the docking of commercial space taxis.
NASA suggests that Commander Barry Wilmore and Flight Engineer Terry Virts will conduct the first of the planned three spacewalks on Friday, Feb. 20. The spacewalk is expected to last for more than six hours and the astronauts will prepare communication gear and cable for a couple of new docking ports on the ISS. The other two spacewalks are planned for Tuesday, Feb. 24 and Sunday, Mar. 1, which will allow the two astronauts to continue the work.
The latest reconfiguration of the ISS is the first in the last few years.
There has been an increase in the number of commercial space taxi visits to the ISS in the past few years. Moreover, the visits to the space station to deliver cargo and crew are also expected to increase further in the coming years.
However, the latest redesign of the ISS is mainly needed as commercial space companies such as SpaceX and Boeing get set to ferry cargo and U.S. astronauts to the space station from 2017. Even though SpaceX has been sending cargo to the space station, no U.S. space taxi can send astronauts to the ISS. Currently, NASA astronauts are carried to the ISS via Russian capsule Soyuz.
Boeing is building two International Docking Adapters on which the commercial space taxis will dock. They are estimated to be sent to the ISS later this year on board the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. However, before the docking adapters arrive, astronauts will have to make necessary rearrangements on the ISS.
Mike Suffredini, ISS program manager, revealed that the major change to the ISS will be the repositioning of the Leonardo multipurpose module from the Unity to the Tranquility connection nodes. This operation will be handled with the help of robots on ISS, which will be controlled from the Earth.
"This is quite a bit of work. Our plan has always been to have a docking capability in place and operational by the end of 2015 and we're on track to do that," said Suffredini.
Previous reports suggest that Boeing is estimated to launch an uncrewed flight test in April 2017, which will be followed by a crewed flight test in July 2017.
SpaceX is also planning for an uncrewed flight test in late 2016, with a crewed flight test scheduled for 2017. Both companies will hope that necessary changes are made to the ISS for their crafts to be docked.