CAPE CANAVERAL – Astronauts successfully attached a fancy new observation deck to the International Space Station early Monday after a long, frustrating night spent dealing with stuck bolts and wayward wiring.
But they will have to wait a few more days before gazing out the $27 million domed lookout, expected to provide unprecedented 360-degree views of Earth, outer space and the space station itself.
The shutters on its seven windows, including the largest ever sent into space, will be unlocked during the mission’s third and final spacewalk Tuesday night and cranked open Wednesday or Thursday – and neither astronauts nor flight controllers can wait to soak in the views.
“The cupola, I think, is really one of the most spectacular viewing platforms that we will have had in space … so we’re eagerly awaiting the release of the shutters and the first views,” flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho told reporters Monday.
A pair of astronauts used a giant robotic arm to move the observation deck from one side of the space station’s newest room, called Tranquility, to the other. The lookout had been attached to the room in a temporary position that allowed it to fit inside shuttle Endeavour’s payload bay during launch.
It took several hours for the shuttle and station crews to complete the relocation job.
Space station commander Jeffrey Williams was loosening a series of bolts to release the lookout when several jammed late Sunday. With commands from Mission Control, astronauts were able to increase the torque and free the bolts – but then they saw an electrical connector popping out from the dome.
Down in Mission Control, flight director Bob Dempsey clutched his head at the unwelcome news. As experts studied pictures that were beamed down from orbit, Williams assured everyone the wiring would not interfere, saying he had seen the wire like that before. He was right.
On Saturday, a different set of bolts prevented the astronauts from attaching a thermal cover between Tranquility and the observation deck. Williams removed those bolts and managed to secure the hatch cover over Tranquility’s docking mechanisms early Sunday.
The lookout – described as a bay window – is 5 feet tall and nearly 10 feet in diameter at its base. Its round central window is the largest at 31 inches across.
Because the port was going to be empty once the observation deck was moved, NASA wanted a cover there to keep Tranquility’s docking mechanisms from getting too cold. That port wasn’t going to be vacated for long. The astronauts planned to move a docking adaptor into that slot Monday night.
Both the dome and $380 million Tranquility are European contributions to the space station and represent the last of the major building blocks. NASA’s part of space station construction will end with the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, scheduled for this fall.
Given the imminent end of the shuttle program, Endeavour’s six astronauts are savoring their time in orbit more than they might have otherwise, Alibaruho said. Their 1-week space station visit will end Friday.
“This crew has done a very good job of taking the time to really enjoy and reflect on the opportunities that they have in space right now, to see the wonder of it and just enjoy the time on the International Space Station,” he said.