NASA astronauts, spacewalking outside the International Space Station, have just finished installing what's likely to be the best viewing platform ever: A multi-windowed observation deck that offers Earth views from low Earth orbit.
The deck is part of the new Tranquillity node that Space Shuttle Endeavour has just delivered into orbit, flying on her last mission into space before being mothballed. It's kind of fitting then that as part of this mission, Endeavour's played its part in placing the largest window ever used in space onto the ISS—the central piece of glass in the observation Cupola, and the most amazing part of the Italian-made observation dome. The Cupola structure itself is some 10-feet across and about 5-foot high, and designed to provide 360-degree views of the ISS, and of the Earth below.
Why's it being installed though—aren't huge windows dangerous in space? Well, yes they are. But the Cupola has armored shutters that can be remotely snapped over the windows when the dome's not in use, to protect them from micrometeorite impacts. And the view through the dome's portholes will help enormously in future space station operations, and will no doubt result in even more amazing photos being Twittered by astronauts and cosmonauts.
But can we suggest that there's one slightly more imaginative, fanciful bit of thinking behind the deck? It's got a huge precedent in countless science fiction books an movies. The idea of a glass dome offering unparalleled views of planets and the cosmos appears over and over again: Arthur C. Clarke wrote about the scariness of huge windows in 2061, Douglas Adams had a Golgafrincham spaceship captain relaxing in a bath underneath a glass dome, and the Tranquility observation Cupola itself even bears a passing resemblance in look and size to the domed, faceted window in front of the pilot's console of the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. Was the chance to recreate this iconic sci-fi device just a little too tempting for all the space agencies involved in the ISS? If nothing else, the breathtaking views through it will be transmitted back to Earth, where they may inspire a generation who've just had their biggest space dreams quashed by the President.