Nasa astronauts Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts during a spacewalk

ISS upgrade kicks off ahead of new spaceships arrival

Astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) have started mounting new equipment outside the orbital outpost in preparation for the arrival of Nasa’s new private spaceships scheduled for 2016.

During an almost seven-hour spacewalk on Saturday, Nasa’s astronauts Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts installed six cables to the docking port of the station’s Harmony module where the Space Shuttles used to berth.

"This will be the most complicated cable-routing task that we have performed (by spacewalkers) to date," Nasa lead spacewalk official Karina Eversly told reporters during a conference last week.

The two space-farers will venture into open space two more times later this week to complete the task, after which the station will be fitted with a total of 233m of new cabling as well as a communications system needed for the arrival of Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's upgraded Dragon capsules.

The reconfiguration of the docking ports will continue throughout 2015 with the installation of two Boeing-built international docking systems, to be delivered by SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vehicle.

"We're doing a lot of reconfiguration this year," Kenneth Todd, station operations manager, said at the news conference. "We are really trying to take the station into this next phase."

To make room for a second berthing port on Harmony and two docking slips for cargo ships, Nasa also plans to relocate another module using the station's robot arm.

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the 15 partner nations of the $100bn International Space Station have depended on Russia to bring astronauts to and from the orbital outpost.

Instead of developing a new space ship in house, Nasa contracted private suppliers Boeing and SpaceX to deliver the technology, freeing its hands for projects related to deep space exploration and a possible manned mission to Mars.

On Saturday, Boeing and its partner United Launch Alliance started construction of the Commercial Crew access tower at Nasa’s spaceport on Cape Canaveral, which will be used for manned launches of Boeing’s CST spacecraft atop an Atlas rocket.

The new crew access tower at SLC-41 will be 60 metres high and include an elevator, as well as means for quick evacuation from the structure in the event of an emergency.


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