NASA astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins are conducting one of the most vital spacewalks for the future of the International Space Station. The pair switched their spacesuits to battery power at 8:04 am ET and began a more than six-hour spacewalk.

Their mission? To install the first of two international docking adapters (IDAs). Without these adapters, manned missions from Boeing and SpaceX are a no go.

Getting the first IDA to the ISS took a bit longer than expected. The first one was originally launched to the ISS back by SpaceX in June 2015. But that mission failed when the launch vehicle disintegrated about two minutes after launch.

Installing the international docking adapter

Williams is no stranger to working outside the ISS. Today’s spacewalk will be his fourth. For Rubins, it will be her first stroll into space.

Did You Know: Today’s spacewalk is the 194th for the International Space Station. The first three happened in quick succession as astronauts Jerry Ross and James Newman worked on the ISS three times in just six days in December 1998. The longest spacewalk was in March 2001 and lasted 8 hours, 56 minutes.

Work for today’s spacewalk began on Wednesday when ground controllers used the robotic arm to snatch the IDA from the Dragon spacecraft and place it 2 feet away from the Pressurized Mating Adapter-2 (PMA).

IDA installation

Once the IDA is moved into contact with the PMA, Williams and Rubins will hook up tethers. After that, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Takuya Onishi will send commands to close the hooks between the two docking ports. With the IDA secured to the ISS, the two spacewalking astronauts will connect the all-important power and data connectors.

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In about four hours, Williams and Rubins will wrap up their work installing the first IDA. And with it, the first important step to NASA no longer relying on Russia to get astronauts to the ISS.

Launching astronauts from the U.S.

The last time NASA astronauts headed to orbit from the U.S. was the final shuttle flight in 2011. Five years later, Williams and Rubins are laying the foundation for those flights to start again.

NASA tapped SpaceX and Boeing to bring their astronauts to the ISS and back again. SpaceX is targeting a test flight with two astronauts in late 2017. Boeing is looking at 2018 for their first test flight. Once the tests are completed and NASA gives the go-ahead, the two companies can begin ferrying astronauts to the ISS.

Look for these dates to shift around some. It wouldn’t surprise me for both tests to be in 2018 with the first official crew mission to the ISS in 2019.

With SpaceX and Boeing shouldering the load for delivering astronauts to orbit, it frees up NASA for grander things. The main one being a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. We’ve heard all about the elusive mission to Mars when we were kids. But it feels like some progress is finally being made now.

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