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Space Station Shutters Open to View of Sahara

This image is the first taken through a first of its kind "bay window" on the International Space Station, the seven-windowed Cupola. The image shows the Sahara Desert spread out through the array of windows

Astronauts opened the shutters of the International Space Station's new seven-windowed cupola before dawn Wednesday, providing panoramic views of the Earth. Here's our report on this third and final spacewalk of Endeavour's mission, as well as the "room with a view" the astronauts installed.

The window shutters opened onto a view of the Sahara Desert - a scene that was especially awe-inspiring because it was the Sahara desert as seen from a new observation deck in space.

The view moved NASA's Bob Dempsey, who is the lead International Space Station flight director for this mission. He describes what he calls one of the most exciting moments in his career at NASA.

"Sitting in my chair in mission control, looking out at the view was just spectacular," said Bob Dempsey. "And the astronauts who are accustomed to views that you and I cannot really describe were moved to tears when they looked out the windows of the cupola for the first time tonight."

The cupola is a new addition to the space station. It is essentially an observation deck, or room with a view, with six windows around its sides and another in the center.

The space shuttle Endeavour brought the cupola and the new Tranquility module to the International Space Station last week. A few days ago, spacewalkers bolted the cupola to its permanent Earth-facing position on Tranquility.

But the seven shutters were not opened until before dawn Wednesday.

Two spacewalkers, Robert Behnken and Nicholas Patrick, removed insulation blankets and launch restraint bolts from the cupola's windows. NASA says the men completed all their planned tasks during the five hour and 48 minute walk, which was the third and final walk of this mission.

Inside the cupola, Endeavour's pilot, Terry Virts, opened the windows one at a time, beginning with the 80-centimeter window at the cupola's center.

Dempsey said the cupola conjured up images of the spacecraft in the famed Star Wars movies.

"It looks a little bit like the Millennium Falcon, but it is an incredible view," he said. "I know we have already had one photo tweeted from the International Space Station on Twitter."

That photo, sent by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, shows the tawny brown beauty of Africa's Sahara Desert filling the dome's seven windows.

Dempsey said more and better photographs will be available Thursday when the crew's pictures are downlinked.

Also Thursday, astronauts will move a robotics operation station into the cupola.

"I do not think anything can ever replace the live view of looking out the window, and that just gives you so much better situational awareness," said Dempsey.

Dempsey says astronauts in the past have successfully used video cameras to control the station's robotic arm. But, he says, this new window will be a great addition for robotics operators aboard the International Space Station.