Astronauts aboard the International Space Station got their first views of Earth from a new cupola today – the kind of sweeping panoramas that have largely remained the domain of space walkers.
By all accounts, it was a seminal experience.
“The astronauts, who are accustomed to views you and I can’t really describe, were moved to tears when they looked outside the windows of the cupola for the first time,” said the mission’s lead space-station flight director, Bob Dempsey, during a pre-dawn briefing on the progress of the space shuttle Endeavour’s 14-day mission to the International Space Station.
The shuttle crew installed a new module, Tranquility, on the station. Tranquility will house exercise equipment, life-support systems, and sanitation stations.
The cupola is a critical part of the module. It measures nearly 10 feet across and 5 feet tall. It is designed to give ISS crew members a new position from which to operate the station’s robotic arm as it grapples with incoming resupply capsules. And it allows crew members inside to provide extra sets of eyes to support colleagues conducting space walks.
Each of the window’s seven panes is protected from micrometeoroids and space junk by a thick shutter. Among the other tasks they performed during the third and final space walk of this mission late yesterday, shuttle crew members Bob Behnken and Nicholas Patrick removed thermal blankets from the outside of the cupola, then removed bolts that held the shutters snugly in place during Endeavour’s launch on Feb. 8.
Shortly after midnight, Eastern Standard Time, the crew opened the first of seven shutters – one that covered the cupola’s circular central pane.
“As expected, the view through Window 7 is absolutely spectacular,” said ISS commander Jeffery Williams, as the shutter opened. “Absolutely incredible.” [Editor's note: The original version misstated Williams' title.]
The rest of the shutters opened like flower petals to extend the view.
Already, new station crews have been training to use the robotic arm from the cupola, Mr. Dempsey says. Until now, crews have relied on video cameras to serve as their eyes.
But “the windows give you so much better situational awareness” than the video-camera system crew members have relied on to date, he says.
When the cupola isn’t being used, the shutters will typically be closed, mission managers have said. But when crew members are in Tranquility using exercise equipment or during free time, they will be able to open shutters on the windows facing down and away from the station's direction of motion to take in the vistas.
With the addition of Tranquility and the cupola – space station components the European Space Agency supplied as payment for launching and installing its Columbus laboratory at the station two years ago this month – assembly of the US contributions to the station is essentially finished.
The four shuttle flights remaining before the shuttle program ends in later this year are devoted largely to bringing up large quantities of supplies and spare parts.
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