ET-94 arrives into Los Angeles for road trip to California Science Center

by Philip Sloss

External Tank 94 is in the final stretch of its voyage from New Orleans, Louisiana, to its new home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Towed on a barge by a tugboat up the California coast, the tank arrived in Los Angeles county at Marina del Rey on Wednesday and will be moved across LA, like Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour was in October 2012, to the Science Center on May 21.

ET-94 – Completing Endeavour’s display:

The arrival of ET-94 in Los Angeles comes just two days after the fifth anniversary of the final launch of the Shuttle Endeavour and marks a major milestone for the California Science Center (CSC) in its plan to display the Endeavour in launch configuration.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 09.25.16Endeavour herself was ferried by the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to Los Angeles in September 2012 and was then taken on a multi-day trip through the streets of LA to her temporary display hanger, where she has since waited for final funding, construction, and acquisition of components for her final display facility, the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center.

In contrast to Endeavour’s arrival in LA, ET-94 has made a more than 5,000 mile trip by sea.  

The ocean tow-trip began from the tank’s birthplace, the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, Louisiana, on April 13.  

Following a route similar to what External Tanks originally intended to fly on Shuttle missions from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, were slated to take, ET-94 reached the Panama Canal on April 25 and made the canal crossing in a couple of days.  

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 09.10.13After passing through the Panama Canal, the tank’s tow ship, the Shannon Dann, participated in an at-sea rescue of a sunken charter fishing vessel’s crew off the western coast of Baja California, Mexico, before proceeding on to the Port of San Diego, where it passed through U.S. Custom and Border Protection checks.

After clearing customs, the tank arrived in Los Angeles county at Marina del Rey on May 18 ahead of its planned transport through the streets of Los Angeles to the CSC on May 21.

That transport through LA, according to Nate Miranda, project manager for the CSC, will cover over 16 miles, a little more than the almost 13 miles that Endeavour took on her cross-town drive from Los Angeles International Airport.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 09.20.40At 154 feet in length, ET-94 is longer than Endeavour, although the lack of wings and a vertical tail should make the move less difficult than the near-Herculean task that was maneuvering the Endeavour around immovable obstacles in the LA streets without damaging the historic spacecraft.

For this weekend’s move, the External Tank will ride atop its standard transporter that’s been modified with better-articulating wheels for street driving while being towed tail-first by a modified tractor-trailer.  

“What they did in Michoud was remove the standard wheels and then put [a] dolly underneath,” Miranda explained. “The standard wheels only allowed for a very limited amount of maneuverability, so we had to find something that was a lot better.”  

Unlike Endeavour’s multi-day trek, transport of ET-94 is planned to take all day Saturday, reaching speeds of no more than five miles per hour.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 09.06.16Once ET-94 is safely at the CSC, the tank will be parked outside next to the building where Endeavour is currently on display.  

There, restoration work will be done on ET-94 to get it ready for permanent display.  

“It requires a lot of cosmetic work,” said Dennis Jenkins, Project Director for the future Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center at CSC.  

“It’s been sitting outside in the Louisiana rain for a couple of years [and] the foam has taken a beating. North Carolina Foam Industries, which made the [External Tank] foam, is supporting us. We’ll restore it using…a very similar [foam] product.”

2016-05-18-151122Construction of the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center is planned to begin this year and take about three years to complete.

The plan is to display Endeavour, ET-94, and Solid Rocket Booster hardware in launch configuration.  

The SRB hardware is currently located at the Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

With the decision to permanently display Endeavour in launch configuration, the CSC will complete the trio of display configurations for the three surviving flight Orbiters of the Shuttle Program – thus allowing people to view Endeavour as the Shuttles appeared on the launch pad, Atlantis (at KSC) as the Orbiters appeared in flight while on orbit, and Discovery (at the Smithsonian in Washington DC) as the Orbiters appeared on the runway at the end of their missions.

2016-05-18-152730Moreover, with the decision to display Endeavour in launch configuration came the decision of which mission Endeavour’s tank and configuration should mimic.

That mission, according to Jenkins will be Endeavour’s STS-118 flight from August 2008, chosen because of Barbara Morgan’s presence on the flight as a Mission Specialist.

The CSC’s display of Endeavour in her STS-118 configuration will not only honor Endeavour’s 25 missions but will also provide a subtle tribute to the Shuttle Challenger, that Endeavour succeeded, and the STS-51L crew, for whom Barbara Morgan was the back-up for Christa McAuliffe and the Teacher In Space program.

To this end, ET-94 will be restored with that look in mind, with no PAL (Protuberance Air Load) ramps, all of the tank’s ice-frost ramps installed, and no bipod ramps.

All the other supporting hardware that had been removed from the tank has already arrived at the CSC for future re-installation.

Moreover, according to Jenkins, the tank will eventually be painted to seal the foam.

Once ET-94 and the Solid Rocket Booster assembly are ready, the time will come to mate all three main elements together.

2016-05-18-152915When that happens, it will be done while they are horizontal, more resembling how the Soviet Buran Shuttle launch vehicle was mated than how the U.S. Shuttle elements were stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  

Current plans call for the Booster hardware to be attached to the tank first, before Endeavour is placed on top of the tank.

The whole stack will then be moved to the site of the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center building and raised to vertical.

ET-94 history:

Originally built at the turn of the century, ET-94 was the last lightweight tank (LWT-87) fully assembled and produced by Lockheed Martin.  

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 09.20.48It was officially delivered to NASA in January, 2001; however, it remained in storage at MAF waiting for a flight assignment.  

Shuttle missions had begun flying almost exclusively with the lighter Super Lightweight Tanks (SLWT), which allowed significantly more payload to be carried on each launch.  

With most missions flying in support of International Space Station assembly, ET-94 was still at MAF when the STS-107 crew and Shuttle Columbia were lost in February 2003.  

At the time of the STS-107 mission, ET-94 was tentatively being considered for the fourth Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission planned for the end of 2004.

STS-107 had launched with a sister lightweight tank, External Tank 93; after the accident, ET-94 was used as a test article during the accident investigation.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 09.14.48Following the accident investigation and the decision in early 2004 to retire the Shuttle Program, ET-94 continued to be used as a test article in support of continuing engineering for the Shuttle Program.  

After the program returned to flight, the tank was used to help validate repairs to a hail-damaged tank (STS-117/Atlantis) and to troubleshoot issues with the liquid hydrogen tank low-level cutoff system.  

Towards the end of the program, the tank was frequently brought up as a candidate for an additional Shuttle mission.

Eventually, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act directed that ET-94 be refurbished for use or as a part of the development of the Space Launch System.  

No funding was approved, though, and this never happened.

ET-94 stayed in storage at MAF, eventually being moved outdoors a few years ago to make way for ongoing production work, such as with the SLS Core Stage.

(Images: California Science Center, NSF members: Sam Sun, Jacques van Oene and Neil Halelamien.)

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