Astronauts ventured out on the third and final spacewalk of their mission Tuesday night and unwrapped the International Space Station's phenomenal new lookout - the best window on the world that orbiting crews have ever had.
Robert Behnken and Nicholas Patrick had a multitude of chores to complete outside, but the most anticipated was the unveiling of those seven windows, a fitting grand finale to the shuttle mission's spacewalks.
"Let's take the covers off," shuttle commander George Zamka urged as the spacewalk got under way.
"It may be station's smallest module, but good things come in small packages," Patrick observed.
Behnken and Patrick had no trouble removing the stiff insulating blankets from the domed lookout. "Its gleaming metal looks terrific," Zamka said.
Next, Patrick went on to unlock the shutters. After that, the astronauts inside were going to crank open the shutters, and if everything went well, enjoy the biggest and best views of Earth ever afforded orbiting astronauts.
Mission Control wanted the shutters opened while the spacewalkers were still outside so the two men could intercede if something jammed. Barring a problem, Behnken and Patrick were under orders to stay a safe 10 feet or more from the windows after the shutters were raised. The last thing NASA wanted was to have one of them inadvertently kick a window or bang it with a toolbag.
The $27 million observation deck is part of the new space station room, Tranquility. Space shuttle Endeavour delivered the European compartments last week.
The Italian-built dome - 5 feet tall and nearly 10 feet in diameter - is designed to offer sweeping 360-degree views of the home planet and outer space, as well as the space station itself. It's not just for the crew's viewing pleasure; a robotic work station will be installed early Thursday, providing direct views for astronauts when they operate the station's big mechanical arm.
Six trapezoid-shaped windows encircle the dome. In the middle is a round window 31 inches across; it's the largest window ever flown in space.
During normal operations, the space station crew will be able to keep the round window unshuttered most of the time, along with a couple others. But the windows facing along the direction the outpost is orbiting will need to be closed, except during robotic operations, to protect against a micrometeorite strike.
The six shuttle astronauts began their ninth day in space listening to a recording of Jimmy Buffett's "Window on the World." Mission Control played the song to set the night's mood.
The spacewalkers had to finish plumbing work on Tranquility before moving on to the dome. They opened up the valves on an ammonia coolant line that they hooked up during Saturday night's spacewalk.
Tuesday night's spacewalk represented the last of the Endeavour crew's space station construction work. The shuttle will depart Friday.
Back at the launch site, meanwhile, NASA has delayed the next space shuttle flight. Discovery had been scheduled to blast off in mid-March, but a string of unusually cold weather stalled preparations. Liftoff is now targeted for April 5.
Only four more shuttle flights remain.
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