Jeanette Epps has never been to space. The NASA astronaut joined the agency in 2009, but is still waiting for her first trip to orbit. She hopes to one day fly on Orion, the spacecraft that will sit atop the Space Launch System, NASA's heavy lift shuttle successor. And when that day comes, Epps knows her life will be in the hands of workers at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana.
"Thank you for all the work that you did in the past, and all the work that you're going to do in the future, to keep me safe," she said.
Epps was speaking at a title transfer ceremony Tuesday for ET-94, the last unflown space shuttle external fuel tank. The tank, which went unused following the loss of Columbia in 2003, is being shipped by barge to the California Science Center. There, it will be displayed vertically with shuttle Endeavour and two solid rocket boosters, creating a one-of-a-kind museum exhibit. "The best way to display a shuttle is in launch position," said Jeffrey Rudolph, president and CEO of the California Science Center, shortly before signing large placards legally transferring the tank to his organization.
Last unflown space shuttle fuel tank leaves New Orleans Jason Davis / The Planetary Society
The departure of ET-94 created a full-circle moment for Michoud. Shuttle tanks were built here for three decades, and the factory will now assemble the Space Launch System's core stage. The signing ceremony, in fact, took place in view of a forest of completed SLS core stage barrel segments. Nearly all of the barrels for the rocket's first flight in 2018 are finished, and will be welded together this fall. The barrels measure 8.4 meters across—the same width as the shuttle's external tank.
"It's just amazing, when you think of the things have played forward," said Jody Singer, deputy director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The shuttle's external fuel tank was redesigned three times, getting lighter with each revision due to advances in technology and materials science. Those lessons are now being applied to SLS. Singer spent ten years working on the external tank program, and spoke fondly about the sense of family that persists around Michoud. "I've never been exposed to such fine people," she said.
After the ceremony was complete, NASA officials, guests and members of the media made their way to Michoud's dock, where ET-94 had been previously loaded aboard the barge Gulfmaster I. Following a quick stop in Gulfport, Mississippi to meet up with the ocean-class tugboat Shannon Dann, ET-94 will slice southward across the Gulf of Mexico, passing between Cuba and the Yucatán Peninsula into the Caribbean Sea.
Around April 22, the tank will approach the Panama Canal. Emmert International, a logistics and large-haul shipping company overseeing the move, says ET-94 will probably spend two to four days waiting in a queue to pass through the canal. The trip through the canal itself takes at least a day or two.
Then, the barge will be in the Pacific, hugging the coast of Central America and Mexico as it travels north. Since the journey is not being made during hurricane season, the tank should be in relatively little danger, and can seek a sheltered port in the event of bad weather. After a brief stop in San Diego, ET-94 should arrive at Marina Del Ray on May 18. The last leg of the journey, an overland trip through the streets of Los Angeles, will be made Saturday, May 21.
Back at Michoud, the tugboats Miss Gloria and Morgan Ray nudged the barge slowly away from the dock. It was a carefully orchestrated maneuver; at one point, the Gulfmaster I was re-tethered while the tugs were repositioned.
About an hour after the operation began, ET-94 finally pulled free and headed for the Intracoastal Waterway. It made a left turn and slipped out of sight behind a levee, turning another page in Michoud's long and storied history.
Expenses for this reporting project were covered by a partnership between The Planetary Society, California Science Center and Toyota.