Feb. 12, 2010 — -- 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.
Space Station: Room With a View
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.
Tranquility may ring a bell with you, especially if you watch Comedy Central. Last year NASA ran an online contest to get people to pick a name for it (the agency suggested names like "Serenity" and "Earthrise") -- but Stephen Colbert stuffed the digital ballot box. He got fans to submit an alternative name -- his -- which handily beat everything else.
NASA took a deep breath and announced, on "The Colbert Report," that it would name the module after Tranquility Base, where Apollo 11 landed on the moon. But the comedian will still be immortalized in space. Bolted to the floor near the cupola will be an exercise treadmill called C.O.L.B.E.R.T. (Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill).
So with Tranquility in place, astronauts will work out inside, enjoy the view outside, and wonder just what's happening down on Earth. The Bush administration proposed that the space station be ditched in the Pacific in 2015, while astronauts go back to the moon and eventually on to Mars. This month the Obama White House proposed that the station keep flying until at least 2020, while new technology is developed to make future space exploration more practical. Astronauts peering out the cupola's windows may have a lot of time to look.
They may not mind. Years ago, I was in Houston talking with astronaut Kenneth Cockrell about the space station's budget problems, and he said there had been long conversations about whether any station sections could be left out to save money. There were compromises made (the station has no bedroom per se; a "habitation module" was canceled), but then they got to talking about whether the cupola could be left out.
"What happened?" I asked.
"That was non-negotiable," he smiled.