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Space shuttle external tank bound for L.A. museum plays role in sea rescue



NASA's last existing built-for-flight space shuttle external tank was involved in the rescue of a sunken fishing boat's crew off the coast of Baja California. (California Science Center/Dennis Jenkins)
May 14, 2016

— The crew of a sunken fishing boat has a space shuttle external tank to thank for their rescue.

Three Americans and one Mexican were on the Maximus, a charter fishing boat, when it sank off the coast of Baja California on Thursday (May 12). Fortunately, its crew was able to make it safely onto a life raft to await the next ship to come along and pluck them out of the Pacific Ocean.

As it just so happened, that next vessel was the Shannon Dann, the towboat transporting NASA's last existing flight-qualified space shuttle external tank (ET) for the California Science Center.

The Shannon Dann, on its way from New Orleans to Los Angeles via the Panama Canal, was in the area and able to rescue the Maximus' crew on Thursday evening.

"ET to the rescue!" the California Science Center posted to its social media accounts on Friday. "The four people were rescued in a life boat by a tugboat named Shannon Dann — the one pulling the ET!"


The tugboat Shannon Dann is delivering the space shuttle external tank to Los Angeles. (California Science Center/Dennis Jenkins)

The three Americans will remain on the Shannon Dann as it proceeds on to San Diego, where the external tank will be processed through U.S. Customs. A Mexican military vessel will be dispatched to pick up the Mexican national, according to the Science Center.

Communications with the Shannon Dann while it is still at sea are limited, so additional details about the rescue were not available.

The external tank no. 94 (ET-94) is expected to arrive at San Diego on Sunday. The Shannon Dann will then deliver the tank to Marina del Rey, where it is scheduled to enter the breakwaters at about 6 a.m. on Wednesday (May 18).

The arrival at the marina will mark a successful end to ET-94's ocean voyage, which launched on April 12 at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Riding atop an open-air barge, the 154-foot-long by 32-foot-wide (47 by 10 meter) orange-brown tank transited the Panama Canal two weeks later on April 25 and 26.

The California Science Center will host its annual black-tie fundraiser, the Discovery Ball, at the marina on May 20, with the external tank serving as a backdrop for the night's celebration. Then, at just past midnight May 21, a custom-built Mack truck will begin towing ET-94 on a 15.5 mile (25 kilometer) road trip through the streets of Los Angeles.


Street map of Los Angeles showing the route ET-94 will take from Marina del Rey to the California Science Center. (CSC)

The external tank's delivery to the Science Center will take between 19 and 21 hours.

Once there, curators and conservators will work to restore the external tank such that it will be ready to be mated with a pair of solid rocket boosters and the retired space shuttle Endeavour to form the world's only fully-authentic, vertical display of a space shuttle stack. The exhibit will be housed in the California Science Center's planned Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center, which is targeted to open in 2019.

The external tank served as the structural backbone of the space shuttle and fed liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen to the three main engines mounted to the aft of the orbiter.

The only external tank built for flight but never used, ET-94 became a test article, used to validate modifications made to the tanks that enabled the shuttle fleet to safely return to flight after the loss of space shuttle Columbia in 2003.


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