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Astronauts install new front door at space station

Marcia Dunn
Associated Press

Cape Canaveral, Fla. — Spacewalking astronauts installed a new front door for visitors at the International Space Station on Friday, the crucial first step in welcoming commercial crew capsules as soon as next year.

The two Americans, Jeffrey Williams and Kate Rubins, hooked up the docking port — their major objective — in just a few hours.

They were about to tackle some extra chores, but a problem cropped up with the right earpiece in Williams’ helmet and he had trouble hearing. Mission Control decided to play it safe and bring them inside about a half hour early. The spacewalk concluded at the six-hour mark.

“We’re done for the day,” Mission Control advised the crew.

Williams assured flight controllers that his helmet was dry. The last NASA spacewalk in January was cut short because of a small water leak in one helmet. A much bigger leak, from the suit’s cooling system, almost led to a spacewalker’s drowning in 2013.

The station’s new gateway arrived last month, packed in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule.

Americans haven’t rocketed into orbit from their home turf since NASA’s last shuttle flight in 2011. SpaceX and Boeing expect to resume human launches from Cape Canaveral in another year or two. But their crew capsules can’t dock without this new-style parking spot, which replaces the now obsolete shuttle setup and is meant to be internationally compatible.

Friday’s success paved the way for these future spaceships.

“Thanks for your help in getting the front door on the space station,” Mission Control radioed.

SpaceX is shooting for a test flight of its souped-up Dragon with two astronauts as early as a year from now. Boeing is aiming for a two-person shakedown of its Starliner capsule in early 2018. Until then, Russia will keep providing all the rides — at a hefty price for U.S. taxpayers.

NASA started using private U.S. companies to carry out cargo shipments a few years back. Commercial crew launches will be an even bigger advance. This commercial handoff is freeing up NASA to focus on true outer-space exploration; the space agency is working to get astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

This is actually NASA’s second new docking ring. The first was destroyed in a SpaceX launch accident last summer. NASA ultimately wants two of these parking places at the lab.