Giant space shuttle tank arrives in L.A. by sea

The space shuttle external tank known as ET-94 never flew, but it finished a decidedly different journey, by sea, early Wednesday when it docked in Marina del Rey atop a sea barge.

The 15-story tank began its journey last month from NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, where it was built, pulled by a tugboat called the Shannon Dann for 4,000 nautical miles en route to its new home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. 

The tank cleared the breakwater of the marina at 5:57 a.m. beneath a gray sky.

Rick Oefinger, president of Marina del Rey Sportfishing, standing near his dock just before 6 a.m., said he was planning for big crowds to pour into Fisherman's Village over the next few days to see the tank.

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"It's exciting, every time you see a piece of solid, all-American equipment," he said. "You feel kind of patriotic. You feel good."

It was an eventful ride for the orange giant. ET-94 rode out a storm in the Cayman Islands. It traversed the Panama Canal. And, last week, the Shannon Dann rescued four people off the coast of Baja California after their fishing boat sank.

Once part of a fleet of 136 external fuel tanks that flew during the shuttle program, ET-94 is the last remaining flight-ready tank in existence. The tanks detach from the shuttle and break up in the atmosphere.

ET-94 was the so-called sister to ET-93, the tank of the space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart and burned up on reentry in 2003, killing the seven astronauts on board. ET-94 was examined extensively in the investigation into what went wrong and was never sent into space.

ET-94 will remain in Marina del Rey until early Saturday morning, when it begins a16.5-mile ride through Inglewood and Los Angeles city streets, similar to the shuttle Endeavour before it, on its way to the California Science Center in Exposition Park.

It will be displayed with the Endeavour, positioned vertically, as if ready for launch.

Oefinger had been tracking the progress of the tank on a marine tracking mobile app, which reported it nearing the Marina moving at 4.3 knots.

Spectators lined the docks at Fisherman's Village as the big orange tank pulled in, snapping photos and waving small American flags that said, "Marina del Rey welcomes ET-94."

Kayakers and paddleboarders watched and a few sea lions popped their heads out of the water nearby as the tank neared.

When it became visible, Susan Glasheen, 61, of Playa Vista, gasped. "Camera time!" She said, whipping out her iPhone.

She and her neighbor, Kyla McDaniel, 48, watched from chairs by the water, clutching cups of coffee. They got there around 5:30 a.m., in the dark.

Glasheen had witnessed part of Endeavour's journey through the streets of Los Angeles in 2012, meeting it near Los Angeles International Airport before 3 in the morning. She'll never forget the image of the nose of the shuttle appearing suddenly in the dark.

She said she couldn't miss the tank's arrival.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she said. As the tank slowly pulled in, she put her camera down and just watched, soaking it in.

It took nearly two hours for the tank to cross the marina.

Tracey Herold and her 12-year-old daughter, Magbee, of Marina del Rey, watched excitedly as it passed.

"It's big!" Magbee said as it pulled closer. The sixth-grader said she would tell her friends and science teacher about it at school later.

"Nobody's going to believe me, though," she said, grinning. "I'm going to tell them I saw a giant orange jelly bean."

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One woman said ET-94 looked like a hot dog. A man said it reminded him of the big doughnut atop Randy's Donuts, huge and out of proportion to everything around it.

One boat in the harbor had a big blue banner reading, "Marina del Rey welcomes ET-94."

In the crowd along the water, one woman said softly, "it's a sight to see, isn't it?"

Someone else laughed at the seagulls swooping in: "These birds couldn't care less."

Dave Morse, 80, rode his bike from his home in Venice to see the arrival.

"It's like watching paint dry," he said as the tank moved very slowly through the water. "You can tell they're being careful with it."

Gary Sherman, 63, a retiree from Marina del Rey, watched with his pug, Max.

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Sherman said his father worked on the space shuttle program years ago as a quality control engineer. Sherman said he saw one of the last shuttle launches in Florida and saw the Endeavour when it was at LAX in 2012.

Seeing the tank reach Los Angeles was a capstone, he said.

"It's like the end of an era, the end of a chapter," he said. "My dad's been gone some 20 years now, but it's like a piece of his work and a part of his life."

Nine-year-old Clash Bushwell, a third-grader from El Segundo who came with his pajama-clad family, said he was also going to tell his friends and science teacher at school about the experience.

Looking at the tank in the water and drinking hot chocolate, he said, "It looks kind of old."

He said he was ready to answer classmates' questions about what the tank did on the shuttle.

"I'm going to tell them I had to wake up really early and that there was a space shuttle fuel rocket. I think some of them will believe me."

He likes space stuff, he said, grinning, "but I'm not a geek about it."

This, though, was pretty cool, he said.

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hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson


UPDATES:

8:46 a.m.: This post was updated with more details from ET-94's arrival.

8:13 a.m.: This post was updated with details from the tank's arrival.

This story was originally published at 6:49 a.m.

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