A spectacle never seen before — a space shuttle external fuel tank traversing city streets — was witnessed in Los Angeles today as the relic was moved to the museum that will construct a rocket science attraction.
The leftover tank from the shuttle program was donated to the California Science Center for use in displaying the retired orbiter Endeavour vertically in a mock launch pad exhibit opening in 2019.
“We’ve had this dream for many years of putting a space shuttle in launch position, being able to explain the whole system,” said California Science Center President Jeffrey Rudolph.
An ocean-going barge carried the 66,000-pound tank from its factory in New Orleans to Marina del Rey in Los Angeles County, using the Panama Canal to cut across to the Pacific. The trip began April 12 and arrived on Wednesday.
The 16-mile parade from the marina to the museum began just after midnight as the convoy departed Fisherman’s Village with the tank riding on dollies and pulled by a semi-truck.
Crews ahead of the tank took down utility lines, traffic signals and street signs to ensure safe passage of the artifact as enthusiastic crowds, which grew in size during the day, lined the route to get a glimpse of authentic space hardware.
The journey went over the 405 Freeway, passed in front of The Forum in Inglewood and arrived in Exposition Park, teeming with well-wishers, to ceremonially break through a paper chain finish line made by elementary school students.
The trip took 19 hours and ended just after 7 p.m.
Without a wide wingspan or tail to negotiate through the urban jungle, the trek was quick compared to Endeavour’s transfer from the Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center, which took 61 hours to cover 12 miles in October 2012.
Current and former astronauts, including several Endeavour alumni, escorted the tank throughout the transit today, including Dan Bursch, Drew Feustel, Mike Fincke, Ken Ham, Kay Hire, Sandy Magnus, Danny Olivas, Charlie Precourt, Garrett Reisman, Rick Searfoss and Steve Swanson.
The entire transport effort — from New Orleans to California Science Center — cost approximately $3 million and was privately funded by the EndeavourLA Campaign.
The tank will be positioned on the north-side of the Endeavour pavilion on Sunday morning. That is where restoration work and reinstallation of orbiter attach hardware, nose cap and outer piping will performed.
Made by Lockheed Martin in 2000, External Tank No. 94 was a purpose-built, “deferred” tank earmarked for a non-space station mission, likely to be to launched with shuttle Columbia and probably a Hubble Space Telescope servicing call, NASA says.
But a chunk of insulating foam broke free from sister-tank ET-93 and doomed Columbia’s heat shield in 2003. Investigators turned ET-94 into a forensic tank, dissecting foam samples after the accident and later performed further engineering tests.
Since it was made to heavier design specs than the tanks that launched station assembly missions, NASA opted against having ET-94 extensively re-foamed for flight or updated with post-Columbia safety modifications, so it never gained a flight assignment.
Last year, with the shuttle program long over and seeing no future need to keep ET-94, NASA gifted the tank to the California Science Center.
“With the transfer of ET-94 from NASA, we will have the ability to preserve and display an entire stack of flight hardware, making the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center an even more compelling educational experience,” said Rudolph.
External tanks were the structural centerpiece of the shuttle vehicle on launch, holding the twin solid rockets while being the reservoir of a half-million gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for the orbiter main engines.
At 28 feet in diameter and 154 feet in length, the external tank is longer than the distance of Orville Wright’s pioneering first flight in 1903.
The tanks were the only expendable part of the shuttle system, separating from the orbiters while on suborbital trajectories and burning up in the atmosphere on the way back down.
The shuttle program ended in 2011 and the decommissioned orbiters were shipped to their final resting places in 2012. Discovery is located at the Smithsonian’s annex in Northern Virginia and displayed on her wheels as if just back from a mission. 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 prototype Enterprise is located aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.
The California Science Center intends to use the fuel tank and a pair of filament-wound solid rocket boosters to showcase Endeavour standing upright as the star of the $250 million Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center to be built near to the LA Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.
Groundbreaking is planned later this year for the new museum, which will feature air, space and shuttle exhibits and artifacts. Endeavour is expected to move from the temporary public viewing pavilion to the permanent museum in 2018.
Architects plan to integrate the solid rockets, external tank and orbiter horizontally, then raise the fully assembled stack upright and complete construction of the new museum around the shuttle. Endeavour will be out of public sight for about a year.
The California institution is known for its hands-on educational experience for schoolchildren and hosting class field trips. Endeavour has been an inspirational tool at the Science Center, encouraging kids to study science, technology, engineering and math since going on display four years ago.
The public can see the spaceplane and walk underneath the veteran of 25 spaceflights for free. Other items displayed separately include Endeavour’s galley and toilet, the tires from her final landing, a fuel cell and real space shuttle main engine.
The California Science Center also houses three space capsules — Mercury 2 that launched the chimpanzee named Ham in 1961, Gemini 11 flown by Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon in 1966 and the U.S. command module from the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project that featured the first handshakes in space between Americans and the Soviets.
Endeavour was the fifth and final operational orbiter to be built, replacing the lost Challenger. The ship orbited the Earth 4,677 times and accumulated 299 days in space over her 19-year flying career.
The maiden voyage in May 1992 was a dramatic adventure to rescue the wayward Intelsat 603 telecommunications satellite that required the astronauts to improvise with the first-ever three-man spacewalk to manually grab the spacecraft after attempts using a specially-designed capture bar failed to work.
Endeavour also conducted the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing in 1993, one of the stellar achievements for the space program that installed corrective optics to fix the observatory’s flawed vision.
Other trips in the 1990s deployed and retrieved satellites, mapped the Earth with radar and scanned the cosmos with payloads carried in the orbiter’s cargo bay. She also visited the Russian space station Mir once.
Then Endeavour opened the International Space Station era by launching the first American piece of the outpost — the Unity connecting node — to begin orbital construction in December 1998. Subsequent flights by Endeavour would take up the station’s initial solar array power tower, all three sections of Canada’s robotics including the arm, mobile transporter and Dextre hands, the Japanese science facility’s “attic” and “back porch” for research, and the Tranquility utility room with the Cupola.
Her 12th and final mission to the station finished NASA’s construction work by adding the exotic particle physics experiment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer.