Astronauts aboard NASA's shuttle Endeavour packed up their spaceship for the trip home Thursday after more than a week at the International Space Station, but not before holding a grand opening ceremony for the orbiting lab's newest room and stunning observation deck.
Shuttle commander George Zamka and station skipper Jeffrey Williams, equipped with ceremonial red ribbon and scissors, officially opened the station's new Tranquility module and its seven-window observation deck.
"Arguably mankind has been after this view for centuries, this perspective, this view of the world," Zamka said. "We finally have it and we are going to take advantage of and enjoy it."
Williams said he will remember this moment for the rest of his life, especially the views out the observation deck, which NASA calls the Cupola.
"It culminates just about the assembly complete of the space station, getting us to full capability," he said. "So, this Cupola means a whole lot."
A short time later, the two crews bid early farewells to one another and shared hearty hugs as they locked the hatches between their two spacecraft. Endeavour is due to undock from the space station Friday evening.
"It's been an awesome mission. You guys did a great job," Williams told the shuttle crew.
Moon rock opening
Zamka marked the Cupola's opening by presenting a plaque containing four chips from a moon rock and a fragment taken from the top of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth.
The Everest rock was collected by a former astronaut last year. The moon rock samples, however, were retrieved from the Sea of Tranquility during NASA's Apollo 11 mission – the first manned lunar landing – in July 1969. The new station room is named in honor of that mission.
"They will be placed in the Cupola as a reminder of man's reach and man's grit as they go out and explore," Zamka said.
Williams dedicated the new space windows to the memory of the late astronaut Lacy Veach, who died of cancer in 1995 and was involved in the Cupola's early development. Williams placed a patch with Veach's name in the observation deck and his photo on the station's airlock.
Endeavour pilot Terry Virts said the panoramic view of Earth out those seven windows took his breath away. Sunrises over the curve, or limb, of the Earth have been his favorite.
"When you pass into the sunlight, you get the blue limb and then it turns into pink, and different colors like that. And then when the sun pops up, it's like an instantaneous flood light in your eyes," Virts said with emotion while answering questions from reporters late Thursday. "The view is amazing."
Endeavour spacewalker Robert Behnken said the view may be even better than from outside the space station in a spacesuit. After all, you can take your time and look out the windows in every direction. Spacewalking astronauts must steal glimpses of the Earth during brief rest periods.
Farewell to space station
After meeting the press, the shuttle and station astronauts had one last lunch together as they prepared to go their separate ways. They expected to have fun before saying their farewells.
Shuttle astronaut Nicholas Patrick, a native of England, acknowledged that there is a pub-like feeling onboard.
"There's a lot of the friendly atmosphere up here," Patrick said. "If we had a beer up here, it would make the best pub in the world."
The shuttle launched to the space station Feb. 8 to deliver the station's new Tranquility module and a seven-window lookout called the Cupola. It took three spacewalks and some tricky robotic arm work to install them.
Together, the new additions cost nearly $409 million. They were built in Italy for NASA by the European Space Agency and leave the now 11-year-old space station 98 percent complete.
Endeavour's STS-130 mission is the first of NASA's five final shuttle missions. The space agency plans to retire its three aging shuttles this fall and is looking to commercially built spacecraft to replace them.
Mission Control said the astronauts may not have snow or ice on the station, but they're worthy of Winter Olympics gold.
"Congratulations on a docked mission of 'Olympic' proportions," Mission Control told the shuttle astronauts in a message tucked away in their morning mail. "You are officially the only folks who are able to get more hang time then Shaun White."
White, the American snowboarder, took the gold Wednesday night in the men's halfpipe at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi said he's been trying to keep up with the Olympics using the space station's Internet connection. White's snowboarding win aside, Noguchi said he's looking forward to the results of the ski jumping events and figure skating.
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