Built for space travel but never flown, this orange 66,000-pound, 15-story-tall aluminum phallic tank is actually the world’s last fully functional space shuttle external tank (ET) and it now calls LA its home.
History was made one year ago when the last-existing, flight-qualified external fuel tank (ET) from NASA’s Space Shuttle Program made a 16.5-mile crawl through the streets of Los Angeles to its new home at the California Science Center.
The massive orange tank began its journey to Los Angeles on April 10, 2016 when it was pulled out of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana. Two days later, it was tugged into the Gulf of Mexico to begin a voyage that took it through the Panama Canal. The 4000-nautical mile sea journey even made some headlines, when the crew of the tugboat pulling ET-94 helped rescue four people who had to abandon a sinking sportfishing boat off the coast of Baja California.
I was still sleeping when the tank cleared the breakwater at the marina at 5:57 am back on May 18, 2016, so I made my formal introduction during my dinner break from work, which was located only a mile from where ET-94 was going to be parked before making its way to the California Science Center later that weekend. I was hoping for an amazing sunset during my visit but got a classic case of Marina Del Rey May grey instead.
That didn’t stop the crowds though.
I mean, when’s the last time you had the opportunity to see a 15-story-tall orange dildo-shaped tank parked at Fisherman’s Village? Exactly.
You may recognize the external tank as the giant orange structure that was attached to the shuttle to supply fuel to the its main engines during liftoff. The external tanks carried freezing cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and were the only non-reusable part of what was called the Space Transportation System, or STS. But the tanks weren’t always orange. – Photo: NASA
According to JPL, “During the first shuttle missions, engineers were worried that the sun’s ultraviolet radiation might damage the insulating foam, so the tanks were painted white. Because the white latex paint had to cover such a large surface area, it added a whopping 600 pounds to the already hefty tanks, which in their earliest iteration were called standard-weight tanks, or SWTs, and made of aluminum alloy 2219 welded via tungsten arc welding and coated with an inch-thick layer of polyisocyanurate foam. They weighed 77,086 empty and fuel added an extra 1,589,577 pounds! After the first two STS missions, engineers agreed that the sun’s ultraviolet radiation merely caused the insulating foam to change color from its original tan to the familiar dark orange and did not pose a structural risk, so the use of white paint was discontinued. The saved poundage allowed subsequent space shuttle missions to carry an additional 600 pounds of science experiments.” – Photo: NASA
“Ever striving to lighten the load of the STS to make room for more science payloads, engineers developed the next iteration of external tanks, called lightweight tanks, or LWTs, using weight-shedding techniques including eliminating portions of stringers (structural stiffeners running the length of the hydrogen tank), using fewer stiffener rings, and modifying major frames in the hydrogen tank. This new tank provided a 6,426-pound reduction in specification weight that further evolved to an actual weight of 65,081 pounds for ET-94.” – JPL
“In 2003, disaster struck space shuttle Columbia during the STS-107 mission. The shuttle was fueled by ET-94’s sister tank, ET-93, and as the only remaining lightweight tank in existence, ET-94 was heavily analyzed to examine the role played in the incident by the tank’s external insulating foam. Several chunks of foam were removed from the tank during the analysis, necessitating future repair work to return it to its original appearance. After analysis was complete, the tank resided at the Michoud Assembly Facility, awaiting an opportunity to fly to space that never came, as it could not compete with the svelteness of the new super-lightweight tanks and would require some weighty upgrades to meet new safety standards. Eventually, NASA donated ET-94 to the California Science Center for public display. When finalized, the display will be the only complete stack of STS flight hardware in existence.” – JPL
The elaborate plan to move ET-94 from Marina Del Rey to the California Science Center began at 12:01 am on Saturday, May 21st, 2016. – Map Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Utility companies and public works officials traveled two hours ahead of the procession, moving power lines and traffic signals out of the way. Unlike the hundreds of trees that were ripped out for the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s commute through the LA’s streets back in October of 2012, none were uprooted for ET-94’s journey.
ET-94 arrived in Exposition Park on Saturday, May 21, 2016 just before 7 pm, after a long 19-hour journey through the city’s streets. It now sits on an outdoor lot, just outside the enclosure that houses the Endeavour. The museum is in the process of building the 200,000-square-foot Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center for a stacked display, which will be the only place in the world that people will be able to go to see a complete shuttle stack—orbiter, external tank, and solid rocket boosters—with all real flight hardware in launch configuration. When finished, the California Science Center will be the largest science center in the western United States. You can help the California Science Center Foundation reach its $250 million goal of building the new Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center and support ongoing programs and operations by donating to their EndeavourLA campaign here. – Photo Credit: California Science Center/Dennis Jenkins