The Russian space program's decade-long monopoly on shuttling astronauts to and from the International Space Station will shortly come to an end.
On Friday, Aug. 19, NASA astronauts will install a new and welcome gateway for American commercial spacecraft, launching what's being nicknamed the first "taxi service in space." Commander Jeff Williams and Flight Engineer Kate Rubins of NASA will conduct the 6 1/2-hour spacewalk to attach the new International Docking Adapter to the ISS. The new unit, the first of two, is part of a $3 billion partnership between NASA, Boeing and SpaceX to return astronaut spaceflights back to U.S. soil.
"We awarded the contracts in September 2014," Kathy Leuders, manager of the Commercial Crew Program, said in a briefing last week. "Right now, the companies are in the midst of this grueling periods of getting their vehicles together and getting their structural test articles together. We're getting ready for flight tests. Most importantly, we're getting there as fast as we can safely fly."
In addition to the convenience of a commercial taxi service to space, NASA is also financially motivated to support the move. Back in 2013, the space agency signed a $424 million contract with Russia to shuttle astronauts to the ISS on board its Soyuz space capsules. That cost, an astounding $70.7 million per seat, is something NASA is seeking to reduce substantially through its U.S. partners.
“By enabling commercial companies to take over trips to the space station and low-Earth orbit, we are helping pave the way for further exploration of our solar system,” Jon Cowart, Mission Manager for NASA's Commercial Crew Program said. “Right now, our robots on Mars are doing fantastic things and have covered more than a marathon distance of the Martian surface, but humans could accomplish a lot more because of our ability to react much more quickly.”
NASA will broadcast live Friday's historic spacewalk to install the new docking station starting at 8:05 AM EST. To see an animation of the carefully orchestrated procedure, check out the video below.