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Window on the World

It's only a small pane in the International Space Station.

In the space station era, Earth science studies will be routinely carried out by astronauts as part of their research workload. Protracted spaceflight—as demonstrated by astronauts and cosmonauts who lived aboard the Russian space station Mir—will allow astronauts to become far more sensitized to Earth’s workings. “There is no question that the longer a person stays in space, the more they pick up some of the subtle rhythms of the planet,” says Cynthia Evans, manager of Lockheed Martin’s Houston-based Office of Earth Sciences. As a NASA contractor, she teaches astronauts to become “Earth smart” by instructing them to be on the lookout for phenomena of scientific interest. Her office will also keep station astronauts informed, via daily updates and Internet messages, about current environmental events to maximize the astronauts’ time and to take advantage of the crystal clarity that the new window provides. Ice packs, volcanoes, developing typhoons, snow lines on the continents, biomass burning in northern forests, and the stirrings of future El Niño events will be among the observers’ targets.

In addition to such training by Evans and her team, station crews will be taught how to use the WORF—specifically, the quick installation and removal of cameras and other equipment. Years of shuttle flights have yielded insight into how the handling of cameras, lenses, film, and other accessories can be made easy for astronauts afloat in microgravity, and less of an all-thumbs hassle. Nobody wants to miss that one-of-a-kind shot.

Despite the apparent advantage astronauts have while ogling Earth from on high, securing a little room with a view aboard the station has been a hard-fought battle. It turns out that window panes in astronaut-carrying craft are a real pain to engineers. In the first place, a spacecraft hull’s structural integrity is compromised by a window. “The structural engineers like to have a nice solid cylinder. They don’t like poking holes into metal to put in windows,” explains Karen Scott, senior project engineer at the Aerospace Corporation’s office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. And windows are brittle, not as predictable, in terms of yield-strength, as, say, aluminum. In other words, glass does not fail gracefully. Battle lines were drawn long ago between window-loving astronauts and spacecraft builders. It started with the Mercury astronauts and continued through Skylab and right into the space shuttle era. Though NASA once considered placing photo-quality windows aboard the shuttle, it nixed the idea in order to cut costs. Engineers instead installed the type of glass used in military aircraft—good enough to enable astronauts to safely pilot the shuttle to a touchdown. “They transferred those same window requirements from shuttle to the space station,” Scott says. “I pointed out very early on, what we had then were windows perfect for landing the space station.”

In 1995, Dean Eppler took up the cause of allocating station astronauts quality window time. He became a force in pushing for the space station’s super-quality window. He and his colleagues had to haggle with administrators and persuade the engineers to cut yet another hole in their closed container, then persuade everyone to spend additional money to support the project. In 1996, when station managers green-lighted a U.S. Laboratory window upgrade, Eppler launched a funding campaign that snagged some $700,000, mostly from the earth sciences office of the Department of Defense, as well as from NASA itself.

Like Eppler, astronaut Mario Runco has been a dogged supporter of the laboratory’s high-quality Earth-oriented port and has been a key force behind the design and fabrication of the WORF and the window. During Runco’s three shuttle missions, seeing was believing. He found comfort in the realization that the human eye was far more sensitive than camera and film in picking up details on Earth. As a professional meteorologist and oceanographer, the astronaut was struck, for example, by formation details he noticed in a Pacific typhoon and the fact that at certain angles, sunlight reflects off the sea surface and reveals amazing detail in the subsurface structure of the ocean—and he thinks that many of his fellow astronauts don’t yet realize what’s in store for them. “It will be better than anything they’ve experienced before,” says Runco, who himself isn’t yet scheduled for a space station mission.

Among the scientists and astronauts focused on the window, there is also a sense that the space station’s ultra-clear portal on the planet comes at the right time. Its on-duty role seems attuned to the increasing realization that environmental concern still outweighs environmental action, and that the planet has a long way to go before it can be called healthy.

Besides, a little bit of glass will ensure that homesick astronauts won’t feel as though they’re trapped in an orbiting submarine. “Windows are clearly one of the keys to crew sanity for long stays in space,” Eppler quips.


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