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Space shuttle external tank completes sea voyage, arrives in Los Angeles



ET-94, NASA's last remaining flight-qualified space shuttle external tank arrives at Marina del Rey, completing its ocean voyage to Los Angeles, May 18, 2016. (California Science Center/David Knight)
May 18, 2016

— NASA's last existing external tank built to launch the space shuttle has made landfall in Los Angeles after a five-week ocean journey.

The massive orange-brown tank, which left New Orleans atop a barge April 12, arrived in Marina del Rey, California Wednesday morning (May 18). The space artifact's 5,000-mile (8,000-kilometer) sea voyage included transiting the Panama Canal to cross from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean.

"[The tank] has entered the breakwater of the marina!" the California Science Center stated on Twitter. "Can't believe this journey!!"

The tugboat Shannon Dann led the barge transporting the tank into the marina just after 6 a.m. PDT (9:00 a.m. EDT; 1300 GMT), docking next to Fisherman's Village. A second tugboat, American Spirit, pushed the barge, Gulfmaster I, from behind.


Click to enlarge video in new window. (California Science Center)

The external tank, known by its assembly number ET-94, is destined for display with the space shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center. In 2019, the museum plans to open the Samuel Oschin Air & Space Center, featuring the world's only exhibition of a fully-authentic space shuttle stack as it appeared on the launch pad.

To get from the marina to the Science Center, ET-94 will trade its sea legs for road wheels, departing on a 15.5-mile (25 km) trek through the streets of L.A. beginning just after midnight PDT (3 a.m. EDT; 0700 GMT) on Saturday (May 21). A custom-built Mack track will tow the dolly-mounted tank on its road trip, which is expected to take between 19 and 21 hours to reach its new home in Exposition Park.

Moving at a brisk walking pace not to exceed 5 miles per hour (8 kilometers per hour), the tank will be accompanied for much of its "parade" by a cadre of former NASA space shuttle astronauts and a convoy of about 10 to 12 support vehicles. Technicians will work ahead and behind the tank to clear and restore any obstacles along its way.

"A lot of the work on the utilities will be done just ahead of the transport, so we will be running a crew out in front of it moving utilities, and a crew behind it restoring them," said Jeff Rudolph, president of the California Science Center, in an interview with collectSPACE. "Where there are things to be moved, like signal lights, we have already gone around and loosened all the bolts and checked them to make sure we don't run into problems."


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

At 154 feet long and 32 feet wide (47 by 10 meters), the external tank is expected to draw out crowds of spectators, similar to previous large object moves, including the space shuttle Endeavour and a 340-ton boulder delivered to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to be the centerpiece of an art sculpture. Thousands of people lined the streets to see both moves in 2012.

"We think the number is going to be somewhere between the space shuttle Endeavour and 'the rock,'" said Rudolph. "We are pretty confident we are going to have a lot more than [the rock]. I don't think we are going to have as many as we did for Endeavour, but we are getting tremendous interest."

The Science Center is hosting its annual Discovery Ball at the marina on Friday night to celebrate the tank's arrival and give it a proper send-off before it exits onto the streets of Los Angeles.

Leaving the parking lot at Marina del Ray, ET-94's route will follow Fiji Way to Lincoln Boulevard to Mindanao Way. From there, it will take California State Route 90 (CA-90) to Culver Boulevard, back to Lincoln and then onto Loyola Boulevard.

Turning onto Westchester Parkway, which turns into Arbor Vitae Street at Airport Boulevard, the tank will then take La Brea Avenue to Manchester Boulevard. From there, ET-94 will take Vermont Avenue to Martin Luther King Boulevard to Exposition Park, where the Science Center is located.


ET-94 docks at Marina del Rey to be off-loaded and transported to the California Science Center. (California Science Center)

ET-94's now completed ocean journey began at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana where it was built. The tank crossed the Panama Canal on April 25 and 26 before heading up the coast of Mexico. Along the way, the Shannon Dann was able to rescue the four-person crew of a charter fishing boat that sank.

The external tank made its first West Coast landfall in San Diego on Sunday (May 15) to clear through U.S. Customs, before continuing on its way to Marina del Rey.

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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