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Spacewalkers finish air lock installation

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With the pop of a hatch and a salute to another momentous stroll in space 32 years earlier, two astronauts emerged Saturday from the international space station's newest addition, a $164 million breezeway for spacewalkers.

The air lock's debut coincided with the anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's walk on the moon.

"On this historic anniversary of the first moonwalk, it's a real honor for the integrated shuttle and station crews, along with the flight control teams, to usher in a new era of spacewalking for the international space station," Michael Gernhardt said as he floated out of the station and into the void of space.

Gernhardt and James Reilly II stared down at India as they slid out of the short tunnel one by one. On their first two spacewalks earlier in the mission to install and outfit the air lock, the men exited from space shuttle Atlantis and had the shuttle cargo bay beneath them as a psychological safety net. Not so this time: There was nothing between them and Earth, 240 miles below.

"You get a sense of falling, don't you?" Gernhardt said.

"Wow, look at that!" Reilly replied.

The spacewalkers wrapped up work on the air lock by hooking up the fourth and final high-pressure gas tank, which was hoisted by the space station's robot arm. Then they made their way up to the station's expansive solar wings to inspect a motor.

After four hours, the third and final spacewalk of Atlantis' mission was over. "You inaugurated the air lock in great fashion," Mission Control told the astronauts.

Their success put the eight space travelers on track for a departure of Atlantis early today.

The only noteworthy problem Saturday was the amount of time it took to depressurize the air lock. Instead of six or seven minutes for the final stage, the process dragged on for 40 minutes, delaying the start of the spacewalk.