Marina del Rey celebrates the arrival of NASA’s last classic space shuttle tank — all 65,000 pounds of it

By Evan Henerson

Photo by Karl Sonnenberg

Photo by Karl Sonnenberg

Before taking a long and complicated journey to its new home, ET is spending a couple of days in Marina del Rey.

And given what an enormously big … er … presence this ET is, the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors is throwing this unusual guest a party Friday night before sending it on its way.

No, this is not the second coming of a certain gravelly voiced alien from a beloved 1982 film — though the ET in question certainly has ties to outer space.

ET is an external tank constructed to accompany the space shuttle on its many historic missions. Resting on the shuttle’s belly, these massive tanks stored more than 1.6 million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, essentially functioning as a shuttle’s gas tank. Once the entire fuel supply was depleted, about 70 miles above the earth, the tanks were designed to detach from the shuttle and disintegrate into the atmosphere. NASA built new tanks for each mission.

ET-94, the last remaining flight-qualified external tank in existence, never made it into space. Weighing 65,000 pounds, 154 feet long and more than 27 feet in  diameter, the tank was delivered to NASA in 2001 and stored at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

After acquiring the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2012, the California Science Center in South Los Angeles set its sights on obtaining the tank to join Endeavor and the solid rocket boosters—the three together creating a complete shuttle stack for the museum.

NASA agreed to donate the tank, and so ET-94 was loaded onto a barge and moved through the Panama Canal en route to Fisherman’s Village, where it arrived early Wednesday morning. It will remain in the marina until about midnight Friday, when it begins its final journey to the California Science Center.

Prior to the tank’s departure, however, marina visitors can view it and enjoy festivities in its honor Friday night at Burton Chace Park. The park party from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday includes food trucks, live music and space-themed carnival activities.

Then at midnight, ET-94 leaves for its slow trek across town, a journey expected to take between 13 and 18 hours.

ET-94’s route to the California Science Center takes it from Fiji Way to Lincoln Boulevard to Mindanao Way to the 90 Freeway to Culver Boulevard, the south on Lincoln to Loyola Boulevard before catching Westchester Parkway / Arbor Vitae Street on its way east through Inglewood.

The entire move from New Orleans to downtown L.A. cost about $3 million, according to California Science Center officials.

Although the hoopla over the transportation of ET may not rival the to-do over Endeavor’s arrival three years ago, museum administrators expect the 15-story fuel tank to spark a few selfies.

“I watched it go through the Panama Canal and it got tremendous public interest,” said California Science Center President Jeffrey N. Rudolph. “I think the thing that will intrigue people more than anything else is that it’s a real piece of hardware that is part of the space shuttle. Knowing the story about it even makes it even more interesting.”

That story includes the tank playing a role in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion that killed all seven crew members. A sister tank (ET-93) had been attached to Columbia, and during the two years that the shuttle missions were grounded, NASA investigators studied ET-94 to determine the cause of the explosion, eventually  concluding that  a piece of foam breaking off from the fuel tank had hit the shuttle’s wing and caused the catastrophe. Several sections of foam were removed from ET-94 during that investigation, necessitating some repairs on the tank before it could be displayed.

When NASA relaunched shuttle missions in 2005, the majority of remaining missions were to the International Space Station, a journey that required the use of super lightweight tanks (SLWT). NASA did not build any more standard light weight tanks (LWT) making ET-94 — the last remaining LWT — largely unusable.

“One reason we didn’t get ET-94 so quickly was that there was some discussion of using it as a test article for launching the next generation of space vehicles being designed,” Rudolph said. “For some time there was discussion of it being displayed there at the facility where it was built, but NASA agreed it would be great to combine it with the orbiter and the solid rocket boosters so that there’s at least one place in the world that has the full stack of shuttle hardware.”

Spectators can follow the tank’s journey out of the marina, across the 90, down Lincoln, through Inglewood, up Vermont Avenue and into Exposition Park.

In addition to attracting gawkers, ET-94’s month long trip to California made a splash prior to its arrival.

“Off the coast of Baja, our tug towing ET-94 rescued some folks whose boat had gone down. They were in a lifeboat,” Rudolph said. “They picked up four people, one of whom is Mexican and was picked up by the Mexican Navy. The other three are Americans and they took the rest of the journey with the tank.”

“It’s really amazing,” he continued. “You couldn’t have made this up.”

The party in Burton Chace Park (13650 Mindanao Way) is from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, May 20, with parking available in county lots #4 (13500 Mindanao), #5 (4545 Admiralty Way) and #77 (13560 Mindanao) and shuttle service (by land, not space) serving other points in the marina. Call (310) 305-9545 or visit