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Astronauts' work on observation deck done

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —The astronauts aboard the shuttle-station complex are finishing some last-minute packing.

After more than a week together, the two crews will say farewell early today and seal the hatches between them. Endeavour will undock from the space station tonight.

The 11 space fliers teamed up over the past week to install a new room, Tranquility, and an observation deck at the International Space Station. Endeavour delivered the European compartments, the last of the major space station building blocks.

The Italian-built observation deck with seven windows is designed to offer sweeping 360-degree views of the home planet and outer space, as well as the space station itself.

During normal operations, the space station crew will be able to keep the center round window unshuttered most of the time, along with a couple others. But the windows facing along the direction the outpost is orbiting will need to be closed, except during robotic operations, to protect the fused silica glass against micrometeorite strikes. Each window has four panes.

Mission Control congratulated the astronauts Thursday for "a docked mission of Olympic proportions." In a message, Mission Control said, "You are officially the only folks who are able to get more hang time than Shaun White," the Olympic snowboarder.

Four more shuttle flights remain. After that, the space station will have to rely on visiting capsules and supply ships from other countries. The orbiting outpost, at least, won a reprieve under President Obama's budget plan; its working lifetime was extended to 2020.

Endeavour will return to Earth on Sunday, two weeks after blasting off.

The next shuttle visit has been delayed. Discovery had been scheduled to blast off in mid-March with spare parts and science experiments, but a string of unusually cold weather stalled preparations. The launch is now targeted for April 5.

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