Space shuttle fuel tank delights crowd as it begins its slow roll to Exposition Park

With a New Orleans jazz band playing and dozens of people waving white handkerchiefs and wishing it a good journey, the space shuttle fuel tank known as ET-94 started rolling on its daylong trip through city streets early Saturday. 

The 66,000-pound tank, sitting atop dollies, left a parking lot near Fisherman’s Village in Marina del Rey. It had been sitting there since its arrival by sea barge Wednesday morning following its monthlong trip from NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where it was built.

As it prepared to leave, guests of the California Science Center’s black-tie fundraising gala milled around the tank in tuxedos and formal dresses in the cool night air, a near-full moon overhead. 

The jazz band played “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the crowd gathered around ET-94 in a second-line march, complete with costumed dancers on stilts. 

When the big orange tank started rolling at 12:08 a.m., there were cheers.

Paula Madison, a member of the California Science Center Foundation Board of Trustees, walking behind ET-94, said it was the perfect moment.

“It’s spectacular,” she said. “Look at it, against the night sky and moon and stars, and think of all the thousands of kids who are going to see this. They are going to say, ‘People made this. And so can I.’ ” 

As the tank turned onto Fiji Way, the gala party was met by dozens of onlookers lining both sides of the road. They came in pajamas and on bicycles. They sprawled on the ground, snapping shots of the tank against the sky. And they posed for selfies, some holding their arms out to mimic its huge size.

Lynda Oschin, chairwoman of the Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Oschin Family Foundation, walked at the front of the crowd alongside it. ET-94 will be permanently displayed alongside the shuttle Endeavour in the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center — named after her late husband and, in her words, her hero.

Oschin could not keep the smile off her face as she watched the crowd. 

“It’s the best,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed, happy. It’s a dream come true for all of us.”

Astronaut Drew Feustel, who flew on the Endeavour’s last mission in 2011, walked alongside ET-94, quietly gazing up at it. And he posed for photos with people along the route. 

It was special, he said, seeing people celebrate the tank and the shuttle program. Even though the space shuttle program has ended, “We have other work we want to do,” he said. “The space shuttle did its job.” 

Vivianne Robinson, 58, rode her bike from Santa Monica, where she works as a grocery store bagger. She got off work at 11 p.m. and rushed to Marina del Rey to see ET-94 start rolling.

Robinson was decked out: She wore large shuttle earrings and a T-shirt depicting a shuttle launching. She sported a homemade top hat with patches from the shuttle program and American flags sticking out the top. 

Sitting in the basket on her bike was an orange alien that she had painted, wearing a California flag bandanna and holding a sign she was given when she tagged along with the shuttle Endeavour as it rode through city streets in 2012. The sign said: “Proud Supporter … The Big Endeavour.”

That year, she’d gotten up at the crack of dawn to see Endeavour leave LAX. She wouldn’t have missed seeing ET-94, she said, adding that it was even more fantastic than she had imagined.

“That mankind can make something that incredible?” Robinson said, her voice trailing off as she stared up at it. 

“Even though I worked all day, there was no way I was going to miss this,” she said. 

Just after 1 a.m., Robinson said she had to be at Venice Beach by 9 a.m. to start working again. There, she writes people’s names on tiny pieces of rice and sells them. She might not sleep Saturday night, she said, but that’s OK. She didn’t mind showing up in her space shuttle outfit.

As the tank rolled toward Pacific Coast Highway, Robinson kept walking with it, into the dark, a huge grin on her face. 

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