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Cosmonauts decommission old space station docking module in 7-hour spacewalk

Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov conducted their first spacewalk together on June 2, 2021.
Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov conducted their first spacewalk together on June 2, 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Two Russian cosmonauts took a spacewalk outside the International Space Station today (June 2) to prepare an old docking module for disposal.

Expedition 65 Flight Engineers Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, both of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, opened the hatch of the Poisk airlock at 1:53 a.m. EDT (0553 GMT), marking the beginning of today's spacewalk. 

"Congratulations, you are outside at last," Novitskiy said as Dubrov joined him outside the airlock. Neither of the two cosmonauts had been on a spacewalk before.

The duo spent just over 7 hours working in the vacuum of space to decommission the Pirs docking compartment — work that began in November with another pair of spacewalkers — and complete a few other maintenance tasks outside the station. 

Related: The International Space Station, inside and out (infographic)

Later this summer, Russia's Progress 77 cargo freighter will remove the nearly 20-year-old Pirs (Russian for "Pier") module from the orbiting laboratory, pulling the minivan-sized compartment back to Earth. Both the cargo ship and Pirs will burn up safely in the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean, NASA officials said in a statement. 

Deorbiting Pirs will clear up a parking spot for the new Russian Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module, named "Nauka" (Russian for "science"), which is currently scheduled to launch on July 15. Progress 77 and Pirs will depart the International Space Station two days after Nauka launches, NASA TV commentator Rob Navias said during a webcast of the spacewalk. 

Cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov (right) is seen riding the Strela boom as crewmate Oleg Novitskiy reels him in during a 7-hour spacewalk outside the International Space Station on June 2, 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV)

For today's spacewalk, Novitskiy and Dubrov worked to disconnect cables and telemetry equipment between Pirs and the Zvezda module, the main component of the Russian portion of the International Space Station. 

But first, they worked on some unrelated maintenance tasks, like replacing a fluid flow regulator on the Zarya module. Zarya was the first space station component ever launched and is mostly used as a cargo storage area nowadays. The cosmonauts tossed the old fluid flow regulator unit overboard, casting it adrift in space on a trajectory that will not endanger the space station, NASA officials said.

This view from the helmet camera of Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy shows the container holding an old fluid flow regulator (top left) as it drifts away from the International Space Station after being tossed overboard for disposal during a spacewalk on June 2, 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV)

The cosmonauts also had some fun while relocating a telescoping boom from Pirs back to the Poisk module. "Not everybody can say that they got to ride the boom," Dubrov said. 

Dubrov hitched a ride on the 46-foot (14 meters) Strela boom while Novitskiy reeled it in like a giant fishing pole.

"I feel like I'm a worker on a ship, manning the oars," Novitskiy said to Dubrov. 

"Is it difficult to rotate?" Dubrov asked.

"No, it's just taking a long time," Novitskiy said.

Following the arrival of the new Nauka module, Novitskiy and Dubrov are expected to take a second spacewalk together to begin installing it, though Roscosmos has not yet announced a date for that spacewalk.

In the meantime, NASA has two spacewalks planned for June 16 and June 20. For those excursions, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet will be continuing ongoing work to install new solar arrays outside the station. The supplies for those spacewalks will arrive at the space station this week on a SpaceX Dragon cargo resupply mission. 

And to wrap up a busy month in orbit, the International Space Station will be sending off a Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo freighter to safely deorbit on June 27, followed by the arrival of the Russian Progress 78 cargo resupply mission on June 30.

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Hanneke Weitering

SPACE.COM EDITOR — Hanneke joined the team at Space.com in August 2016 as a staff writer and producer. She has previously written for Scholastic, MedPage Today and Oak Ridge National Lab. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her home town of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. She is currently based in Seattle, home of the Space Needle.