LOS ANGELES — NASA has agreed to give the last remaining external shuttle fuel tank to the California Science Center for display at the museum’s Endeavour exhibit.
The enormous orange tanks that would be attached to the bellies of the shuttles always burned up in the atmosphere shortly after liftoff, and the tank the Science Center is to receive was the last one in existence, never having been used.
“With this gift from NASA, we will have the ability to preserve and display an entire stack of flight hardware, making the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center an even more compelling educational experience,” said California Science Center President Jeffrey N. Rudolph. “It will allow future generations to experience and understand the science and engineering of the space shuttle.”
The fuel tank is huge, 153.8 feet in length, or taller than a 15-story building and longer than Endeavour’s 122 feet. But it is skinnier, with a diameter of 27.6 feet, because it has no wings, which will make it generally easier than the shuttle for movers to navigate the streets of Los Angeles on the way to the Science Center. At about 66,000 pounds, it is less than half the weight of Endeavour.
The fuel tank will come to California the same way it was shipped to Kennedy Space Center in Florida — by barge. It will start a journey of 30 to 45 days at sea from NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the fuel tanks were built by Lockheed Martin, and pass through the Panama Canal, ending up in Marina del Rey.
Then it will begin a daylong journey through the streets of Southern California to get to the Science Center in Exposition Park. The move is expected to take place sometime from the end of 2015 to early 2016, depending on weather conditions and the progress of cosmetic restorations, according to the museum announcement. The route is now being planned.
The tank being given to the Science Center was built at a cost of $75 million. It was considered a lightweight tank, intended to pull the shuttle into low-earth orbit. This version was cheaper to build than the tanks used on shuttles carrying cargo to the International Space Station.
After the shuttle Columbia burned up on reentry in 2003, killing the astronauts on board, NASA reprioritized its missions to complete the space station before retiring the shuttle fleet. It never again flew another low-earth science mission. So the tank went unused.