Sunday, February 21, 2010
Space Station Gets Room With A View
NASA’s Room With a View
By PHIL PATTON
Published: February 20, 2010
Ten years after astronauts first moved into the International Space Station, they finally installed a picture window last week to take in the neighborhood.
The Italian-built “cupola,” delivered by the shuttle Endeavour, has seven large windows centered on a 30-inch central pane. NASA calls the cupola “the largest window ever built for space.” Until now, space travelers have had to be content with the view from portholes.
NASA refers to the cupola as a control tower, and it does resemble an early 1930s airport control tower. Its primary role is functional. It will provide astronauts with a view of the space station’s exterior robotic arm and of visiting spacecraft docking with the space station. But the $27 million cupola also provides a panoramic view of Earth and the surrounding cosmos.
Last Wednesday, the protective shutters covering the windows were opened for the first time. Africa’s Sahara Desert filled the view. “The astronauts who are accustomed to views that you and I cannot really describe were moved to tears when they looked out the windows of the cupola for the first time,” Bob Dempsey, the NASA flight director for the mission, said.
Windows have always been important to astronauts. In “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe told of how the first American astronauts had to beg for a window in their tiny capsules.
Engineers hate windows. They are vulnerable to micrometeorite strikes. They admit sunlight that increases the heat load when, in the space station’s case, it orbits through the day half of the earth. The seals can deteriorate after years of enduring the drastic temperature changes in space.
To address some of those dangers, the cupola’s windows come with shutters.
Julie Robinson, a space station scientist, said in a NASA news release that “crews tell us that Earth-gazing is important to them. The astronauts work hard up there and are away from their families for a long time. Observing the Earth and the stars helps relax and inspire them.”
The new window is reminiscent of dramatic round windows in classical buildings, like the duomo in Florence or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. It also resembles the cupola-like cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s spaceship in “Star Wars,” and Captain Nemo’s giant porthole in the study of the submarine Nautilus in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The cupola attaches to a new section of the station with waste-processing equipment, exercise gear and some living quarters, including more comfortable sleep stations. It used to be known as Node 3. Now it is named Tranquility.
It is late in the game for the window to arrive. The station is almost complete. Only four more shuttle flights are scheduled. The station was originally supposed to be vacated after 2015, although President Obama has proposed extending its life to 2020. Adding the cupola now has a bit of the feel of a suburban home owner trying to spruce up his dull tract house by installing a bay window in the family room.
But the view is to kill for.
Posted by Steve Douglass at 7:34 PM