NASA’s recent installation of a cupola on the International Space Station has caught the eyes of the world. It’s appropriate, considering that the cupola itself is an eye on the world. The cupola is a small blister on the side of the recently installed Tranquility module, which gives panoramic views of the space station, the Earth below, and space itself.
This will allow astronauts to inspect the station and get a clear view of remote operations with the station’s robotic arm. It will also give them the best views of space ever seen from inside a spacecraft.
The cupola has received a lot of attention in the general media. It’s very visual and the scenes of the Earth are lovely. Even the faceted geometric design of the windows is beautiful, and invokes all sorts of memories from science fiction movies.
The immediate gains from having the cupola are now clear, but there will be issues in the long-term that haven’t been properly addressed. Other space stations, both public and private, will follow in the wake of ISS. Any private stations that host private space travelers will probably need a cupola on at least one module. The public will demand it!
Richard Branson’s foray into private suborbital spaceflight was changed by public opinion. Early on, market research discovered that space tourists wouldn’t be content to just sit back and fly through a parabolic arc. They wanted to float around and experience weightlessness. Why? That’s what everyone has seen on government space missions.
It’s an accepted part of the spaceflight experience. The design of Space Ship Two was changed to allow more room for the passengers, allowing this to happen.
Plans for private space stations are taking shape, and the recent emphasis on private aerospace suppliers in NASA’s new policy directions will accelerate the development of these structures.
A dedicated private space station seems realistic in the years ahead, serviced by private launch companies.
Private space travelers will want a good experience for the millions of dollars they will pay to fly to these space stations. They will want a lot of room to float about, and they will also want a good view. Somehow, a space station just won’t feel the same unless it has a cupola-type window.
The public will get used to cupola views over the years ahead, as the ISS is expected to remain operational until at least 2020. There’s always the possibility that ISS will continue to operate even after this date.
Adding a cupola to the side of a module would require some careful planning. It can’t be neatly folded to the side of a module, even if the module is an inflatable structure. Some sort of on-orbit assembly will be required. Adding a cupola to the end of a module would be easier. It could fit inside a payload fairing in line with the module.
The shuttle mission that installed the cupola on Tranquility stored the it at the end of the Tranquility module during its ride in the Shuttle’s payload bay, then shifted the cupola to the side of the module in space.
The placement of a cupola ultimately depends on the orientation of the station. A cupola that just looks upwards into space won’t reveal much. A cupola that shows the Earth will reveal plenty.
It’s time for engineers to start planning for the cupola experience now. The private space explorers of the future are already waiting for it.