Shuttle Endeavor’s giant orange fuel tank hoisted, but winds delay final placement

Space Shuttle Endeavor’s giant orange external fuel tank, ET-94, stands next to two 149-foot solid rocket boosters at the California Science Center on Wednesday. The tank was lifted with a crane on Friday and placed between the rocket boosters. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

An external fuel tank made to propel explorers and equipment into space was tilted skyward by a different mechanism Friday morning, but came within a whisker of completing the mission.

The space shuttle Endeavor’s giant orange tank, called ET-94, was hoisted by a crane overnight and prepared to be placed vertically between two 149-foot solid rocket boosters. But after 14 hours of work, engineers postponed the final installation to 9 a.m. due to gusts of wind that repeatedly hampered the move.

The shuttle’s vertical stack, consisting of the rocket’s fuel tank and twin boosters, is part of an ambitious display under construction at the new Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center.

Work is scheduled to resume at 10 p.m. Friday, when engineers expect winds to slow to 3 mph or less.

The initial lift was delayed three and a half hours due to gusty winds, but crews eventually used two cranes to lift the massive tank, which weighs about 65,000 pounds and measures 154 feet long.

Engineers were able to position the tank just before 7 a.m. and then waited two hours before postponing the final step: gently placing the tank between the solid rocket boosters that were placed two months ago.

“Seeing this process is pretty amazing,” said Jeffrey Rudolph, president of the California Science Center.

A crew member is dwarfed by the tank of the space shuttle ET-94 at the California Science Center.A crew member is dwarfed by the tank of the space shuttle ET-94 at the California Science Center.

A crew member is dwarfed by ET-94, the external fuel tank of the space shuttle Endeavor, at the future home of the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center on Wednesday. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

The completion of the move will mark the fourth of seven markers in the ultimate goal of stacking and displaying the Endeavor upright in what will be the new 20-story museum, an expansion of the California Science Center.

Unlike any other exhibit featuring a retired space shuttle, Endeavor will be configured in a full-stack arrangement, pointing toward the stars as if ready for launch. The shuttle had previously been on display at the science center in a horizontal position from October 2012 until New Year’s Eve 2023, when preparations for its big move began in earnest.

What remains is the final migration of Endeavor to the new site, followed by a crane lifting the orbiter into place and finally joining it to the rest of the stack. That is expected to happen within a month. It will be the first time a shuttle designed for space is assembled vertically outside of a NASA or Air Force facility.

Once Endeavor is in place, scaffolding will be erected around the entire stack to protect the equipment while the rest of the museum is built around it. It could be a few years before the new museum is open to the public.

Read more: Space shuttle Endeavor will have its own large museum in Los Angeles, displayed in launch position

The 15-story orange external tank, the last of its kind in existence, arrived in Los Angeles in 2016, on a sea voyage through the Panama Canal to Marina del Rey. During launches, the external tank carried propellants (liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen) that powered the space shuttle’s three main engines to help put the shuttle into orbit.

It was brought to the construction site on Wednesday using self-propelled modular transporters similar to those used to move the Endeavor through the streets of Los Angeles in 2012.

A team of about 35 workers used a Liebherr LG 1750 crane to lift the ET-94 on Friday. The same crane, capable of lifting 1.7 million pounds, was used in 2011 to take down the Kennedy Space Center launch pad in Florida that Endeavor used on its last space mission, Rudolph said.

Larry Clark, a retired space shuttle engineer who worked 44 years at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said the new exhibit will give his grandchildren a chance to see history.

“All of my grandchildren were born after we retired the space shuttle program,” Clark said. “My 6-year-old granddaughter recently asked me when she was going to see a space shuttle and now she has a place to visit in California.”

The giant orange fuel tank of the space shuttle Endeavor arrives at the California Science Center.The giant orange fuel tank of the space shuttle Endeavor arrives at the California Science Center.

The giant orange fuel tank of the space shuttle Endeavor, ET-94, is moved into place before being lifted by a crane at the California Science Center. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

The shuttle project, estimated to cost $400 million, will reshape the skyline around the California Science Center, whose roots date back 110 years as a site to showcase agricultural and industrial projects. The site became the California Museum of Science and Industry in 1951 and reopened as the California Science Center in 1998.

The new wing of the aerospace museum is named for Samuel Oschin, the late Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist, whose name also appears on the planetarium at Griffith Observatory and the cancer institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Financial contributions from the Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Oschin Family Foundation have been transformative for the construction of the museum’s new wing, which broke ground in mid-2022.

Endeavor flew 25 missions in space before its final flight in 2011, eight years after another shuttle, Columbia, disintegrated upon reentry in 2003, and the shuttle fleet was set to retire. Among Endeavor’s most notable missions was successfully repairing the Hubble Space Telescope and helping to complete construction of the International Space Station.

The ET-94 fuel tank was created shortly before the final voyage of the ill-fated Columbia, which killed seven astronauts.

Although the tank never touched the stars, its trip to the Space Center was not without drama.

Manufactured at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, the ET-94 was placed on a barge and towed. Departure from port on April 13, 2016.. Twelve days later, the tank crossed the Panama Canal, but not before hitting a storm near the Cayman Islands.

The journey slowed again when the tugboat, the Shannon Dann, rescued four stranded fishermen a month later. off the coast of Baja California.

The tank finally arrived in Marina del Rey on May 21, 2016, culminating a 5,000-mile sea voyage, and was transported 16 miles to the California Science Center.

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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