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Space shuttle external tank, en route to L.A., plays role in sea rescue off Baja coast

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The external fuel tank known as ET-94 is on a barge traveling on the Intracoastal Waterway after departing NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

For a space shuttle tank that never flew, the orange giant called ET-94 has some tales to tell.

It was poked and prodded and its foam dissected during the investigation into the space shuttle Columbia disaster. It survived Hurricane Katrina at a NASA facility in New Orleans. It crossed the Panama Canal this month while strapped to an ocean barge on its way to its new home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. 

On Thursday night, ET-94 became a life saver. 

The tank is being pulled up the Pacific Coast by a tugboat called the Shannon Dann, which rescued four people Thursday night after their fishing boat sank off the coast of Baja California. 

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At about 7:15 p.m., the Shannon Dann picked up a life raft with one Mexican and three Americans who had been aboard a fishing boat called the Maximus, said Dennis Jenkins, the project director overseeing the science center’s Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center. 

Jenkins, a former contract engineer who worked on the shuttle program, said the crew of the tugboat sends out a short report from the sea every 12 hours by satellite phone, with observations on average speed, wind and sea conditions and any interesting notes.

Jenkins said the report from Thursday night had in its subject line: “Four people rescued.”

“We rescued four people from a sinking fishing boat,” the report read, Jenkins said.

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“That’s the entire message,” he said, laughing. “Short and to the point.”

Jenkins said the Mexican national would be picked up by a Mexican military vessel and the Americans will ride with the tank to San Diego, where it is expected to go through customs in the coming days before proceeding through city streets next weekend to the science center in Exposition Park. 

“It’s not often you get rescued by a 154-foot tank,” Jenkins said.

ET-94 will be displayed with the space shuttle Endeavour, positioned vertically, as if ready for launch. 

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

The tank’s role in the sea rescue “gives us something else to talk about in the exhibit,” Jenkins said. “Somebody once told me ET-94 saved the space shuttle program; now it’s saving lives." 

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Follow me at @haileybranson / Google+

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