Latest space shuttle tank leaves New Orleans, by sea, en route to LA

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Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 10:46 AM

But tragedy altered its destiny. ET-94 remained solidly on Earth. It narrowly survived Hurricane Katrina and is presently the latest of a fleet of one hundred thirty-six external tanks.

Latest space shuttle tank leaves New Orleans, by sea, en route to LA

The fifteen-story external tank known as ET-94 was meant to latch onto a space shuttle, thrust it into outer space and then detach and burn up in a blaze of glory.

But tragedy altered its destiny. ET-94 remained solidly on Earth. It narrowly survived Hurricane Katrina and is presently the latest of a fleet of one hundred thirty-six external tanks.

On Tuesday, it began a decidedly different, by sea, from New Orleans, to its new residence in Los Angeles.

For the following five weeks, ET-94 will be strapped to an ocean barge. It'll cross the Panama Canal, ride up the Pacific Coast and dock in Los Angeles’ Marina del Rey in mid-May. Then, love the space shuttle Endeavour before it ET-94 will ride through LA streets before arriving at the CA Science Middle in Exposition Park. There, it'll go on permanent display with the Endeavour.

On Tuesday, NASA employees – standing in NASA’s cavernous Michoud Gathering Facility where the external tanks were built during the three-decade shuttle program – saluted ET-94 as a kind of dark-horse hero, going off to inspire future generations.

“It’s a small love watching my baby leave the nest after all these years,” said Patrick Whipps, a NASA engineer who oversaw the manufacturing of the tanks. “It’s my baby. It always will be. I’d like to arrive visit it someday.”

The 66.000-pound cylindrical orange tank was completed in two thousand-first and could hold 1.six million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. After liftoff, the tanks detached about seventy miles over the Earth’s surface and burned up in the atmosphere. Each launch required a new one.

ET-94 was the so-called sister to the space shuttle Columbia’s external tank, ET-93. The Columbia burned up on re-entry in two thousand-third, killing the seven astronauts on board. The mission was doomed when a suitcase-sized piece of insulating foam broke off the external tank during launch, causing disastrous damage to the shuttle.

Scientists and investigators turned to ET-94 to look what went incorrect and how to create future flights safer. Large pieces of its foam were dissected and analyzed to realize how it behaved; scientists also used it to repeatedly test new foam-application methods.

“I'll always see, when I see at ET-94 … that it’s a critical team member, that it made a difference,” said Jody Singer, deputy director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “When you think about it, it’s really appropriate for ET-94 to be the one that’s on middle stage now. It’s time for it to have its day and be displayed.”

In two thousand-fifth, ET-94 was one of about a dozen external tanks to survive Hurricane Katrina at Michoud. As other employees evacuated, a “ride-out crew” of thirty-eight stayed at the manufacturing facility on Elderly Gentilly Road during the storm and for weeks afterward, manning pumps and generators to hold it running while everything around it was below water. Many of them lost their homes while they worked.

Malcolm Wood, deputy chief operating officer at Michoud, was one of those who stayed behind.

“If you didn’t rescue the tanks, then you’d lose the shuttle program,” Wood said. “If you lost the program, then you'd about 3.000 people who were going to lose their jobs.”

One tank, ET-122, was damaged when portion of a roof collapsed, but later was repaired and flew with Endeavour. ET-94 was unharmed. But by then it was considered an elderly tank and was never sent into space.

NASA agreed latest year to donate ET-94 to the CA Science Center. For months, dozens of scientists, engineers, utility workers and Southern CA police officers have meticulously planned every detail of its move.

Just after two p. m. Tuesday, ET-94 – sitting atop wheeled dollies secured to a massive black ocean barge called Gulfmaster I – pushed far from a Michoud dock during a tiny crack in the rain and lightning that threatened to delay its journey.

A white river tugboat named Miss Gloria latched onto the front of the barge and started pulling it with wires through the Intracoastal Waterway, toward open water in the Gulf of Mexico, as planned.

But there was a complication: It was windy.

At about nine p. m. Monday, with winds expected to be in excess of twenty mph, the company directing the move, Emmert International, decided to add a second river tugboat directly to the back of the barge to carefully guide its steering from behind.

“The main thing right presently is we’ve got to look how the barge is going to react with winds blowing; it’s going to wish to thrust to the side,” said Terry Emmert, vice president of the company, standing at the edge of the dock. “The canal’s going to be a lot more challenging than we thought.”

The tank-laden barge was expected to reach open water exterior Gulfport, Miss., early Wednesday. There, the river tugboats were to be replaced by a 96-foot ocean tugboat called the Shannon Dann. A long stretch of braided steel cable will separate boat and barge to absorb shock from the waves.

The barge will travel for seven to nine days, around the clock, at about 6 knots. At the Panama Canal, it'll wait a day or two in a line before passing through. It'll travel for seventeen to twenty days to San Diego, where it'll clear customs before its expected arrival at Fisherman’s Village in Marina del Rey on May eighteen, according to the Science Center.

Emmert, whose company orchestrated the delivery of the 340-ton boulder “Levitated Mass” to the LA County Museum of Art in two thousand-twelfth, said he'll be getting updates twice daily, about wave conditions, wind speeds, pitch and roll on the barge.

For the NASA employees at Michoud, the tank’s departure after more than 15 years at the facility was bittersweet.

Whipps, the engineer, said it represents both the past and the future. He was saddened, love so many others, to look the shuttle program end, but hopes that children who look ET-94 and Endeavour on display will be inspired to become scientists and engineers, love he was as a kid who idolized Apollo astronauts.

When he speaks to schoolchildren, he always tells them: “You kids looking at me are going to be the ones who keep footprints on Mars.”

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