July SpaceX Launch Will Carry Private Entrance To Space Station

Adapter will allow the first astronaut-carrying private spacecraft to dock with the ISS

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The International Docking Adapter is scheduled to ride to the space station during a mid-July SpaceX launch. The adapter is about 5 feet wide and weighs 1,160 pounds.NASA

SpaceX and Boeing are competing to become the first private company to shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station in 2017 (or 2018). But before SpaceX's new Crew Dragon capsule or Boeing's Starliner can put their human cargo onboard the station, NASA needs to install a special adapter that allows these first-of-their-kind private astronaut taxis to dock with the station.

The first of two such adapters will ride to the space station on a SpaceX flight slated for mid-July, NASA announced yesterday. One adapter was supposed to ride to the space station last June, but it was destroyed when SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket exploded minutes after launch.

When the adapter finally does arrive at the space station, a station robot named Dextre will pull it out of the Dragon's trunk and position it over one of the station's ports. Astronauts would then perform a spacewalk to finish the installation.

It’s still unclear for now when exactly we will see the new docking equipment being used, but putting it up on the station is a big step toward a future when private companies are regularly flying people into space, and doing so from America (the latter of which hasn't happened since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011) .