Last space shuttle tank leaves New Orleans — by sea, not air — for its journey to L.A.

The 15-story external tank known as ET-94 was meant to latch onto a space shuttle, thrust it into outer space and then detach and burn up in a blaze of glory.

But tragedy altered its destiny. ET-94 remained solidly on Earth. It narrowly survived Hurricane Katrina and is now the last of a fleet of 136 external tanks.

On Tuesday, it began a decidedly different journey, by sea, from New Orleans, to its new home in Los Angeles.

For the next five weeks, ET-94 will be strapped to an ocean barge. It will cross the Panama Canal, ride up the Pacific Coast and dock in Marina del Rey in mid-May. Then, like the space shuttle Endeavour before it ET-94 will ride through Los Angeles streets before arriving at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. There, it will go on permanent display with the Endeavour.

On Tuesday, NASA employees — standing in NASA's cavernous Michoud Assembly Facility where the external tanks were built during the three-decade shuttle program— saluted ET-94 as a kind of dark-horse hero, going off to inspire future generations.

"It's a little like watching my baby leave the nest after all these years," said Patrick Whipps, a NASA engineer who oversaw the manufacturing of the tanks. "It's my baby. It always will be. I'd love to come visit it someday."

The 66,000-pound cylindrical orange tank was completed in 2001 and could hold 1.6 million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. After liftoff, the tanks detached about 70 miles above the Earth's surface and burned up in the atmosphere. Each launch required a new one.

ET-94 was the so-called sister to the space shuttle Columbia's external tank, ET-93. The Columbia burned up on reentry in 2003, killing the seven astronauts on board. The mission was doomed when a suitcase-sized piece of insulating foam broke off the external tank during launch, causing catastrophic damage to the shuttle.

Scientists and investigators turned to ET-94 to see what went wrong and how to make future flights safer. Large pieces of its foam were dissected and analyzed to understand how it behaved; scientists also used it to repeatedly test new foam-application methods.

"I'll always see, when I look at ET-94 ... that it's a critical team member, that it made a difference," said Jody Singer, deputy director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. "When you think about it, it's really appropriate for ET-94 to be the one that's on center stage now. It's time for it to have its day and be displayed."

In 2005, ET-94 was one of about a dozen external tanks to survive Hurricane Katrina at Michoud. As other employees evacuated, a "ride-out crew" of 38 stayed at the manufacturing facility on Old Gentilly Road during the storm and for weeks afterward, manning pumps and generators to keep it running while everything around it was under water. Many of them lost their homes while they worked.

Malcolm Wood, deputy chief operating officer at Michoud, was one of those who stayed behind.

"If you didn't save the tanks, then you'd lose the shuttle program," Wood said. "If you lost the program, then you had about 3,000 people who were going to lose their jobs."

One tank, ET-122, was damaged when part of a roof collapsed, but later was repaired and flew with Endeavour. ET-94 was unharmed. But by then it was considered an old tank and was never sent into space.

NASA agreed last year to donate ET-94 to the California Science Center. For months, dozens of scientists, engineers, utility workers and Southland police officers have meticulously planned every detail of its move.

Just after 2 p.m. Tuesday, ET-94 — sitting atop wheeled dollies secured to a massive black ocean barge called Gulfmaster I — pushed away from a Michoud dock during a small break in the rain and lightning that threatened to delay its journey.

A white river tugboat named Miss Gloria latched onto the front of the barge and started pulling it with wires through the Intracoastal Waterway, toward open water in the Gulf of Mexico, as planned.

But there was a complication: It was windy.

At about 9 p.m. Monday, with winds expected to be in excess of 20 mph, the company directing the move, Emmert International, decided to add a second river tugboat directly to the back of the barge to carefully guide its steering from behind.

"The main thing right now is we've got to see how the barge is going to react with winds blowing; it's going to want to push to the side," said Terry Emmert, vice president of the company, standing at the edge of the dock. "The canal's going to be a lot more challenging than we thought."

The tank-laden barge was expected to reach open water outside Gulfport, Miss., early Wednesday. There, the river tugboats were to be replaced by a 96-foot ocean tugboat called the Shannon Dann. A long stretch of braided steel cable will separate boat and barge to absorb shock from the waves.

The barge will travel for seven to nine days, around the clock, at about 6 knots. At the Panama Canal, it will wait a day or two in a queue before passing through. It will travel for 17 to 20 days to San Diego, where it will clear customs before its expected arrival at Fisherman's Village in Marina del Rey on May 18, according to the Science Center.

Emmert, whose company orchestrated the delivery of the 340-ton boulder "Levitated Mass" to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012, said he will be getting updates twice daily, about wave conditions, wind speeds, pitch and roll on the barge.

For the NASA employees at Michoud, the tank's departure after more than 15 years at the facility was bittersweet.

Patrick Whipps, the engineer, said it represents both the past and the future. He was saddened, like so many others, to see the shuttle program end, but hopes that children who see ET-94 and Endeavour on display will be inspired to become scientists and engineers, like he was as a kid who idolized Apollo astronauts.

When he speaks to schoolchildren, he always tells them: "You kids looking at me are going to be the ones who put footprints on Mars."

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

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A version of this article appeared in print on April 13, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Shuttle tank begins L.A. journey by sea, not air" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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