John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The 65,000-pound Space Shuttle Program relic has come from New Orleans via the Panama Canal.
There are wide loads, and then there are wiiiiiiide looooads. The Space Shuttle fuel tank that will make its way through L.A. this weekend is the latter: 65,000-plus pounds, 154 feet long, and massive enough to punch a gaping hole in a 7-Eleven if incorrectly steered.
However, NASA is viewing the job with its usual geeky confidence. “Resting on its side, the tank is half the length of a football field,” writes Ota Lutz at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “So it presents a different set of navigational challenges—which, coincidentally, make for some great math problems.”
The external fuel tank, called ET-94, was designed to provide the large amounts of liquid oxygen and hydrogen needed to boost a shuttle skyward. It’s the last flight-qualified tank of its kind, its twin having perished in the Columbia explosion. According to NASA:
In 2003, disaster struck space shuttle Columbia during the STS-107 mission. The shuttle was fueled by ET-94's sister tank, ET-93, and as the only remaining lightweight tank in existence, ET-94 was heavily analyzed to examine the role played in the incident by the tank's external insulating foam. Several chunks of foam were removed from the tank during the analysis, necessitating future repair work to return it to its original appearance.
After analysis was complete, the tank resided at the Michoud Assembly Facility, awaiting an opportunity to fly to space that never came, as it could not compete with the svelteness of the new super-lightweight tanks and would require some weighty upgrades to meet new safety standards.
NASA has since donated the tank to the California Science Center, where it will be displayed with the Space Shuttle Endeavour in “launch configuration.” Angelenos who love science—or are just fascinated by incredibly large objects—can see the tank now in Marina del Rey, where it recently arrived from New Orleans via the Panama Canal. On Saturday morning, crews will slowly tow it through the streets on this 16.5-mile route to the science center (interactive map here):
If for some incredible reason you're afraid you won’t recognize the tank, here are a few more shots of what it looks like: