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After eventful ride, giant orange space shuttle tank arrives in Los Angeles

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 external shuttle tank known as ET-94 never got to cut through the Earth’s atmosphere into the inky blackness of space.

But early Wednesday, it finished a decidedly differently journey — clearing the breakwater of Marina del Rey atop a sea barge beneath a gray sky.

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.

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

“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 a 16.5-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.

Once completed, the Endeavour exhibit with ET-94 at the California Science Center’s Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center will be the only place in the world where you can see a complete shuttle exhibit with all real hardware, said L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“Without the tank, the Endeavour exhibit wasn’t complete,” he said."The space shuttle’s been lonely. She needs a re-coupling with an old flame, so, we’ve brought this tank here.”

As the the big orange tank pulled into the marina, people snapped photos and waved 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.

Susan Glasheen, 61, of Playa Vista, 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.

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“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. The sixth-grader said she would tell her friends and science teacher about it at school later.

“I’m going to tell them I saw a giant orange jelly bean,” she said.

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.

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.

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.”

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hailey.branson@latimes.com

@haileybranson


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