Space Shuttle Fuel Tank Arrives In L.A., Sluggish Journey to Exposition Park Begins Friday

Navigating LA with 65,000 Pounds of NASA Space Shuttle History -H 2016
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared it an "amazing day" on Wednesday morning at Fisherman's Village in Marina del Rey, where around 6 a.m. PT the only remaining flight-qualified external tank from the Space Shuttle program — the ET-94, a gift from NASA — entered the area by barge, after traveling nearly 5,000 miles from NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

On Friday around midnight, the fuel tank is scheduled to begin the final part of its journey, traveling on dollies pulled by a truck, roughly 16 miles through city streets to the California Science Center in Exposition Park, where it will join Space Shuttle Endeavour on display. An estimated 1.5 million L.A. residents witnessed the once-in-a-lifetime event in October 2012, when the retired Space Shuttle Endeavour completed its “26th Mission” — its final 3-day-long journey from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center. This weekend's trek is again expected to draw large crowds.

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, a crowd steadily was growing at Fisherman's Village as the effort to move the fuel tank off the barge began, a process that lasted about an hour. The crowd included the crew, representatives from the California Science Center, city officials, journalists and local residents who excitedly took pictures, videos and selfies during the delicate move.

The external tank is enormous — it weights 65,000 pounds and is 154 feet long and about three stories high. In fact, it's larger and longer than Endeavour (though not as wide due to the wingspan of Endeavour). The fuel tank was the only major component of the Space Shuttle that couldn't be reused. Approximately 8.5 minutes into the flight, with its propellant expended, the tank was jettisoned on a preplanned trajectory, with the majority of it disintegrating in the atmosphere and the rest falling into the ocean. The ET-94 was built to support science missions for the Space Shuttle Columbia. Because of the tragic Columbia accident, which occurred in 2003, the ET-94 was never used. (It was, however, studied to help understand the cause of the accident.)

The ET-94 has already had a memorable journey, leaving New Orleans by barge on April 12, then traveling south through the Panama Canal en route to Marina del Rey. Along the way, that included traveling through a storm with 20-foot waves in the Cayman Islands. In another incident, crew members on the barge rescued four fisherman whose boat had sunk off the coast of Mexico.

A dozen astronauts are expected to appear during ET-94's journey through the L.A. streets, and the aim is to deliver ET-94 to the California Science Center on Saturday night. The cost of ET-94's move is approximately $3 million, funded by the Science Center Foundation's EndeavourLA Campaign. (The EndeavourLA Campaign goal is $250 million, and about half has been secured to date.)

At the California Science Center, ET-94 will sit on the north side of the Samuel Oschin Space Shuttle Endeavour Pavilion, where there will be a viewing area. Its final home will be the not-yet-constructed Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center. The California Science Center anticipates breaking ground on the new facility later this year, which is expected to take about three years to complete. For the final exhibition, Endeavour will be mated to the tank and be rotated 90-degrees vertically to place it in launch configuration — reaching 15 stories high to accommodate a Space Shuttle stack with the Orbiter, ET-94 and real Solid Rocket Boosters. This will be the only such configuration in the world.

"[ET-94] will help complete our vision, with Endeavour and the Flight Boosters, inspiring generations. ... This is also the only time an External Tank will travel through urban streets," Jeffrey Rudolph, president and CEO of the California Science Center, said, adding, "We promise to take good care of these national treasures."

"This will be a powerful educational opportunity to see the real thing, up close," said Lynda Oschin, chairperson and secretary of the Mr. and Mrs. Oschin Family Foundation. "It will be tremendously inspiring for everyone, especially the children. Imagine the young minds that will be challenged and career paths that will begin. [This is about] inspiring our youth to embrace knowledge … and ultimately build a better world."

Also on Friday night, the California Science Center will host its 18th annual Discovery Ball, a black-tie fundraising gala that this year will be held in Marina del Rey. Table seatings of 10 range from $10,000 to $50,000 and individual tickets come in packages of two for $2,500. Gala guests will walk with the ET-94 as the midnight journey begins.

The route to move the fuel tank is a bit longer than the one used for Endeavour. Since the tank is neither as wide as Endeavour (32 feet versus 78 feet) nor as high (35 feet versus 56 feet), it’s expected that fewer utilities will be impacted and no trees will be removed along route, though some light trimming may be necessary, according to the California Science Center.

Pointing to the new rail line that opens this weekend, Garcetti said during the press conference, "if you happen to live in Santa Monica, you can take the rail. There's a stop at Exposition Park (the stop for the California Science Center). Come see our new line and storied rocket."

There will be some street closures along the ET-94 move route. It begins in the Marina del Rey parking lot to Fiji Way; Fiji Way to Lincoln Blvd.; Lincoln Blvd. to Mindanao Way; Mindanao Way to CA-90; CA-90 to Culver Blvd.; Culver Blvd. to Lincoln Blvd. via transition ramp; Lincoln Blvd. to Loyola Blvd.; Loyola Blvd. to Westchester Pkwy.; Westchester Pkwy. turns into Arbor Vitae St. at Airport Blvd.; Arbor Vitae St. to La Brea Ave.; La Brea Ave. to Manchester Blvd.; Manchester Blvd. to Vermont Ave.; Vermont Ave. to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to Exposition Park.