Space Shuttle Fuel Tank Treks Through L.A. Streets to the California Science Center

Festivities began with the Science Center's black-tie fundraising gala, where guests accompanied the fuel tank as it left Marina del Rey.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
The ET-94 fuel tank

Around 12:30 a.m. PT early Saturday, a procession began at Fisherman’s Village in Marina del Rey to move the only remaining flight-qualified external tank from the Space Shuttle program — a gift from NASA. The tank will end its journey at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, where it will join Space Shuttle Endeavour on display.

The ET-94 is enormous — it weighs 65,000 pounds (empty), is 154 feet long and about three stories high. It sits on dollies as it is pulled by a truck on the 16-mile journey to the Science Center, reminiscent of the trip that Endeavour made, which attracted an estimated 1.5 million spectators during its 2012 trek through the streets of Los Angeles. 

To mark the occasion, the California Science Center held a black-tie fundraising gala at the site, and around midnight, guests including roughly 10 NASA astronauts spilled out of the party, led by a New Orleans jazz band playing 'When the Saints Go Marching In." The band and guests followed the fuel tank up Fiji Way toward Lincoln Boulevard. As they walked, they were joined by a growing crowd of residents who came out to see ET-94. "Awesome!" said thrilled guests as they took pictures and posed for selfies with the fuel tank. 

The gala itself, the 18th Annual Discovery Ball, was themed to look back at the fuel tank’s nearly 5,000-mile journey thus far. It started April 12 at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the ET-94 was moved onto a barge and traveled south through the Panama Canal en route to Marina del Rey.

Friday's gala began with a New Orleans-themed cocktail party in the shadow of the fuel tank, featuring performers in costumes and a jazz band. During this time, guests took pictures and selfies under the ET-94. Attendees also “traveled to Panama” for a Caribbean-themed dinner and program that was held under a tent decorated to look like a lush tropical rainforest. The event included a performance by a Panamanian folkloric dance troupe.

Guests were welcomed by California Science Center president and CEO Jeffrey Rudolph. There was enthusiastic applause as he introduced the NASA astronauts in attendance, including Ken Ham, Rick Searfoss, Charlie Precourt, Dan Bursch, Robert Curbeam, Steve Swanson, Danny Olivas, Kay Hire, Garrett Reisman and Sandy Magnus. Astronauts are walking with the fuel tank to the California Science Center, greeting residents and answering questions as they go.

Gala attendees also included guests from the California Science Center community, local officials and representatives from NASA. That included State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Los Angeles Mayor Gil Garcetti.

The gala raised funds via table sponsorships (seatings of 10 ranged from $10,000 to $50,000 and individual tickets were available in packages of two for $2,500), as well as a raffle for a 2016 Lexus RX Hybrid and a Hands-On Science Camp scholarship. The cost of the fuel tank's move is approximately $3 million and will be funded by the EndeavourLA Campaign, whose total fundraising goal is $250 million. About half of that has been secured to date.

The external tank was the only component of the Space Shuttle that was not reused. Approximately 8.5 minutes into the flight, with its propellant used, 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. Then the Columbia accident occurred, involving the ET-93, and the ET-94 was never used.

When it arrives at the California Science Center, the 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 center anticipates breaking ground on the new facility later this year, and it’s expected to take about three years to complete. For the final exhibition, Endeavour will be mated to the tank and it will be rotated 90 degrees to place it in launch configuration, reaching an elevation of nearly 200 feet to accommodate a complete Space Shuttle system that includes the ET-94, the Orbiter and real Solid Rocket Boosters.

The ET-94's route through the streets will continue from Fiji Way to Lincoln; Lincoln to Mindanao Way; Mindanao Way to CA-90; CA-90 to Culver Boulevard; Culver to Lincoln via transition ramp; Lincoln to Loyola Boulevard; Loyola to Westchester Parkway; Westchester turns into Arbor Vitae St. at Airport Boulevard; Arbor Vitae St. to La Brea Avenue; La Brea to Manchester Boulevard; Manchester to Vermont Avenue; Vermont to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; and MLK to Exposition Park.

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

Below is a map of the route the ET-94 will take on its way to the California Science Center. 

See photos of the fuel tanker documented on social media below.