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Forget Portholes, Space Station Gets 360-Degree View

The International Space Station is about to get what NASA is calling "a room with a view" — an observation dome that will give astronauts a window on the world unlike any other ever flown in space.

Sunday morning, space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to blast off on a mission to the space station to deliver the Tranquility node, which is essentially a new room for the outpost. Attached to this room is a special structure called the cupola. It has seven large windows — the central, circular window is about 31 inches across — so astronauts can float inside and be surrounded by a panorama.

That will be a welcome change for astronauts on the station, who currently can only peer out through small portholes that are scattered around the orbiting outpost. Right now, the biggest, best window is currently in the U.S. Destiny lab — it's a porthole 20 inches across.

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"The one thing that I'm really looking forward to, and I know all my crew mates are also, is getting a chance to look out of the cupola, with the seven windows and the view that we're going to get there," says Terry Virts, who will be piloting Endeavour and making his first spaceflight. "Every view that I get will be my first and it'll be great but I think that's going to be really special to see that view of the Earth and of space."

Technically, the new windows aren't for fun. They'll help astronauts orchestrate outside work including spacewalks, robotic arm operations, and docking spaceships. And the windows do have aluminum shutters that will often be closed, to keep them from being hit by tiny micrometeoroids or bits of space junk — even though the tough windows already are several panes thick.

Still, the astronauts can't wait to get the new room all installed and finally open those shutters for the first time.

"We will definitely be bringing along some still cameras as well as videocameras to try to capture those views as best we can to share with you," says astronaut Kay Hire, who will be blasting off on Endeavour.

But, she says, she can guarantee that even the best pictures will never be "like the real thing of actually being there and having the full expanse spread out in front of us."

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