Last space shuttle tank reaches Panama Canal for crossing to Pacific

The tank left Louisiana factory on April 12. Credit: California Science Center
The tank left Louisiana factory on April 12. Credit: California Science Center

CAPE CANAVERAL — The tugboat and barge transporting the last space shuttle external tank to its display venue in California have reached the inlet to the Panama Canal, now just days away from sailing into the Pacific.

It is the fifth shuttle fuel tank in history that has traversed the famous shipping canal. Four tanks were shipped from the Louisiana factory to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in the 1980s for polar-orbiting shuttle launches, then were shipped to Florida once the West Coast pad was cancelled by the Pentagon after Challenger.

The 96-foot ocean tugboat named the Shannon Dann has been towing the Gulfmaster I barge using a braided steel cable, speeding along at about six knots around the clock for the past week-and-a-half. The trip is being overseen by Emmert International.

On April 12, External Tank No. 94 departed New Orleans and the Michoud Assembly Facility where Lockheed Martin had constructed the tank in 2000. It was purpose-built for non-space station, standalone missions by the shuttle Columbia.

But the orbiter was lost on re-entry in 2003, the result of a foam impact that punched a hole in heat shield during launch. The investigation board dissected samples of insulating foam from ET-94 as part of the inquiry and NASA never opted to spend the money needed to refurbish the tank, in part because it was built to a heavier design than tanks used for space station assembly flights.

The barge reached the Caribbean Sea entrance to the canal today to get in line for the 48-mile transit across Panama, going through a series of locks in one of the available shipping lanes.

Map of the trip's progress so far. Credit: California Science Center
Map of the trip’s progress so far. Credit: California Science Center

Once through the canal in the next couple of days, the tank will head north while hugging the Central American, Mexican and Baja coasts in case stormy weather requires the uncovered barge to come ashore.

Plans call for the tank to arrive in Marina del Rey, California around May 19 for a ceremonial welcome and a museum fundraising event on May 20. A parade through the Los Angeles city streets to reach the California Science Center is scheduled for May 21.

NASA donated the tank, the last flight unit left in existence, to the California Science Center to use with the retired orbiter Endeavour and a pair of solid rocket boosters to display an authentic space shuttle stack vertically as if it were on the launch pad.

The Smithsonian has Discovery displayed on her wheels as if just back from a mission and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex has Atlantis with the payload bay doors open and replica robot arm extended as if still flying in orbit.

The Endeavour attraction will be part of the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center opening in 2019 at the California Science Center adjacent to the LA Memorial Coliseum. The museum will have sections dedicated to air, space and shuttle artifacts.

See our coverage of Endeavour’s final spaceflight and retirement archive.