“If you think about it [Michoud’s] history and its heritage, we did the external tank here,” Bobby Watkins, the current director of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, told Ars in late 2015. “That was really our heritage. We built 135 tanks here at Michoud and that has maintained the shuttle program for years.”
Yesterday NASA ended one of the most remarkable chapters in its history. External Tank 94 (ET-94) left the Michoud Assembly Facility, meaning the site no longer houses the iconic fuel containers that have propelled shuttles to space since 1981.
ETs were the orangish foam-covered containers attached to the shuttle to carry large amounts of fuel and oxidizer. (The first few ETs were painted white — with Michoud employees once even running to a nearby Sears to buy up the store’s stock to meet a deadline — but NASA eventually found that didn’t protect against ultraviolet light. and ditch the paint to further reduce weight.) They were huge creations; even lightweight versions like ET-94 came in with jaw-dropping specs: 65,000 pounds, 154 feet long, and over 27 feet in diameter. During launch, ETs transferred the fuel and oxidizer to the space shuttle’s main engines before detaching and falling back into the ocean.
ET-94 is unique among NASA tanks in that it was never flown to space. It was one of three lightweight tanks in a trio dubbed the “deferred-build” tanks, as production of super lightweight tanks had already begun. These were specially ordered to support science missions for the Space Shuttle Columbia. ET-93 was involved in the Columbia Tragedy, with foam from an external tank being identified as the likely culprit. ET-94 therefore became a critical piece of hardware for NASA to investigate what might have gone wrong. (ET-95 was never assembled.)
In recent years, ET-94 has remained on site at Michoud as a visual reminder of the site’s production history from the Saturn program through Hurricane Katrina to the Space Launch System/Orion today. Even in old age, NASA found ways to use it, such as loaning Hollywood ET-94 (look for the cameo in GI Joe: Retaliation as a rocket).
According to the LA times, ET-94 began its trek on Sunday when it took the crew an hour to roll the tank about a mile from the display position to the nearby dock. On a rainy afternoon yesterday, it entered the Intracoastal Waterway where a tug named Miss Gloria will pull it to the Gulf of Mexico before a larger ship takes over. The newspaper notes that the journey passes through the Panama Canal, pauses in Marina del Rey and ends in the streets of Los Angeles. ET-94 will finally reach the California Science Center in May. There, ET-94 will be on display alongside the shuttle Endeavor (which had its own complicated journey to California in 2012).
Rolling on a river! Space shuttle remote tank 94 leaves #NASAMichoud en route to @casciencecenter. #ETcomeshome
– NASA Marshall News (@NASA_Marshall) April 12, 2016
Frame image by Nathan Mattise