When Expedition 57/58 astronaut Anne McClain boarded the International Space Station (ISS), last December, she quickly found what she described as “my new favorite spot”. That spot was the multi-windowed cupola, which sits affixed to the side of Tranquility Node-3 and whose seven observation ports – six circumferential ones and a large circular one at the apex – have been utilized many times to view the Earth and the arrivals and departures of visiting cargo vehicles. McClain was not alone in prizing the cupola’s panoramic view of the Home Planet as the station’s most spectacular location.
This week, it celebrates 9 years since the six astronauts of STS-130 –shuttle Endeavour’s second-to-last mission – installed it and, in doing so, completed the delivery of the last major U.S.-provided ISS component.
Commanded by veteran astronaut George Zamka, who also flew the shuttle mission which furnished the ISS with the Harmony connecting node to bridge its U.S. Destiny, European Columbus and Japanese Kibo pressurized labs, the STS-130 crew included future ISS skipper Terry Virts in the pilot’s seat aboard Endeavour and mission specialists Kay Hire, Steve Robinson, Nick Patrick and future Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken.
They were assigned to the flight in December 2008, with an initial expectation that they would launch in December 2009, but a shifting shuttle manifest eventually found them finally boarding Endeavour for the shuttle program’s final “night-time” launch on 8 February 2010.
Liftoff the previous night had been postponed due to low clouds hanging over the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
Lighting up the darkened sky, Endeavour sprang from Pad 39A at 4:14 a.m. EST to begin her two-day pursuit of the space station and its waiting Expedition 22 team of Commander Jeff Williams and his crewmates Maksim Surayev and Oleg Kotov of Russia, Japan’s Soichi Noguchi and NASA astronaut Timothy “T.J.” Creamer.
Shortly after reaching orbit, Zamka and Virts set to work preparing their ship for maneuvers necessary to reach the ISS, whilst the others set up Extravehicular Activity (EVA) tools and suits and prepared cameras for the approach and rendezvous. They also conducted the customary check of the shuttle’s heat-resistant tiles and Reinforced Carbon Carbon (RCC) surfaces, mandated in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster.
Docking at the forward port of the station’s Harmony node took place without incident a few minutes after midnight EST on 10 February, with both spacecraft flying high above Portugal. The two crews participated in a brief welcoming ceremony and safety briefing, then headed straight to work, with Zamka and Noguchi working to re-size Behnken’s suit ahead of the first EVA.
It had earlier suffered a failure of its power harness, necessary for wireless video and in-glove heaters. With this complete, Behnken and Patrick performed an overnight camp-out in the station’s Quest airlock, before opening the hatches for their first spacewalk – lasting 6.5 hours – on the evening of the 11th.
Shortly after they stepped outside, Virts and Hire maneuvered the massive Tranquility node and its attached cupola out of Endeavour’s payload bay, by means of the Remote Manipulator System (RMS) mechanical arm, and smoothly mated it to the port side of the Unity node. Behnken and Patrick then completed the attachment of power and data cables, as a further 2,600 cubic feet (73.6 cubic meters) of volume was added to the expansive orbiting lab.
With the new node in place, the hatches were opened and, wearing protective masks and goggles to guard against the risk of floating debris, the astronauts floated inside and began activating equipment. They also moved parts for the advanced Resistive Exercise Device (aRED) and an Air Revitalization System (ARS) rack into Tranquility. Early Valentine’s Day, Behnken and Patrick wrapped up another EVA, this time lasting just shy of six full hours, to connect ammonia coolant loops and install thermal covers over ammonia hoses; unfortunately, a minor leakage of ammonia from a connector obliged mission controllers to terminate the spacewalk a little earlier than intended. This afforded the astronauts extra time to run through decontamination and solar bakeout operations before returning inside the station.
Next day, the cupola windows – about which Anne McClain would write with such excitement – were finally opened. The small module was robotically moved from its launch configuration on the “end” of Tranquility to the Earth-facing side of the node, offering it a spectacular view of the Home Planet. With Virts and Hire operating the RMS, the relocation was swiftly accomplished and the cupola shutters were opened. Late on the 15th, as Behnken and Patrick worked outside on their third spacewalk of the mission, Virts gingerly opened each shutter in turn. Hire described it as “raising the curtain on a bay window to the world”.
After almost ten days of docked activities, Endeavour pulled away from the ISS on the evening of 19 February to begin her return home. And at 10:20 p.m. EST on the 21st, after traveling 5.7 million miles (9.2 million km), Zamka and Virts guided their ship to a smooth halt on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at her homeport, KSC in Florida. All told, their mission had delivered 36,000 pounds (16,300 kg) of hardware to the station and Behnken and Patrick’s trio of spacewalks – totaling over 18 hours – had played a crucial role in completing the mammoth outpost.
Of course, all minds were by now keenly aware that the shuttle program was winding down towards its retirement in 2011. For four members of the STS-130 crew, it would be their last experience of flying in space. But for Behnken, the years ahead would see a tenure as Chief Astronaut, ahead of assignment to the first Crew Dragon test-flight, currently targeted for July 2019 but we all know that won’t happen – so let’s say sometime this year.
And for Virts, a long-duration expedition from November 2014 through June 2015 would provide him with command of the third-longest single increment in ISS Program history.
He’s also produced a fascinating book on his experiences, you can order a copy HERE!