The astronauts of the International Space Station will finally have a room with a view -- a real view of the splendor just outside their ship.
Two spacewalkers from the visiting space shuttle Endeavour, Robert Behnken and Nicholas Patrick, helped install the final large component on the station overnight. It is a 23-foot-long cylindrical chamber called the Tranquility Node -- but of most interest to astronauts, perhaps, is that on its side will be mounted a six-foot-wide windowed dome called the Cupola.
"It looks really good, nice and smooth coming in there," Behnken said as he watched the Tranquility module, steered by the station's robot arm, move from the shuttle's cargo bay to a docking port at one end of the 300-foot-long orbiting complex.
After the astronauts are finished hooking up Tranquility's power and data cables, external hand rails and the like, the space station -- at least to someone looking at it from the outside -- will be essentially complete. There are four more space shuttle flights scheduled to finish the assembly of the station, but they will mostly do detail work -- electronics, extra supplies, internal parts and backup equipment.
Tranquility will not be a tranquil place for the five or six astronauts living in the station at any given time. They'll probably retreat to the Cupola whenever they can for a chance to look out.
It's long been an irony that while astronauts talk about the mind-bending views they are privileged to see, they've sometimes had to fight to see them at all.
Alan Shepard, the first American in space in 1961, flew in a Mercury capsule with no windows. Engineers worried that on a dangerous flight in the extremes of space, a window would be a weak spot on the capsule's skin. Shepard and his fellow astronauts practically staged a rebellion to get windows on the five other Mercury missions.
The space station astronauts have it better, but not much. There is a large, round window in the main laboratory, and several smaller portholes, but all of them have to be shielded against the threat of micrometeoroids or other space junk hitting them. (Have you ever found a cracked windowpane at home as your house aged?) Even thick, double-paned glass is vulnerable when you're racing through the near-vacuum 200 miles up, with outside temperatures changing by a couple of hundred degrees on every orbit.
So the cupola will be welcome. It has seven windows -- six around the sides and one on top. Two astronauts can work there at a time, ostensibly to monitor spacewalks or robot-arm maneuvers outside, but really so they can see Earth below them and the black of space everywhere else.
Reality will intrude: each of the windows has an outside cover, made of material similar to what you find in a bulletproof vest. When swung open, they make the cupola look a little like a flower with petals. They will have to be closed whenever the astronauts are doing other things.