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Science Center to exhibit space shuttle external fuel tank

December 16, 2011 |  6:20 pm

Sapce shuttle with external fuel tank The California Science Center has won a new companion exhibit to the space shuttle Endeavour: the shuttle's external tank and twin solid rocket boosters.

The tank –- the orange cylindrical structure affixed to the shuttle's belly at launch –- and twin solid rocket boosters had been displayed at the Kennedy Space Complex visitors center, officials told The Times last week.

When the shuttle exhibit is assembled next year, it will be a challenge to ship the external tank from Florida. It is typically moved by barge, meaning it might have to be transported through the Panama Canal, said California Science Center President Jeffrey N. Rudolph.

"It's actually quite a bit longer than the shuttle," Rudolph said. The fuel tank is 153.8 feet long, and the orbiter is 122 feet.

Museum officials were happy at the award. But a major challenge is that shipping will add to the $200-million  the museum needs to raise to transport the shuttle and build a new wing at the state-run museum in South Los Angeles.

"We're going for donations for everything," Rudolph said.

In October, when asked by The Times if he had a request of the Science Center, shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and Endeavour's last commander, said he hoped that the Los Angeles exhibit would be as authentic as possible.

"Try to get as authentic solid rocket boosters and the external tank as possible. I mean, there's certainly limitations. There are some spare parts that are out there. But if they could acquire, you know, the closest thing to real hardware to finish off that exhibit, that would just be incredible," Kelly said.

The museum intends to have Endeavour displayed vertically –- as if ready for launch -- when it is positioned in its permanent home in a new museum wing.

Rudolph thanked NASA for the gift. "Once this became clear that these were available, we said, well, we wanted them. They actually told us they might be available. A number of other places wanted them, but they chose to give them to us."

The external tank and solid rocket boosters were removed from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in November to make room for a new museum to house the retired space shuttle Atlantis. The tank and boosters had been on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida since the 1990s.

The external tank coming to Los Angeles was originally used for fit checks early in the shuttle program, officials said, and the solid rocket boosters include segments that have flown before, according to the museum.

The twin solid rocket boosters provided the power to lift the shuttle to an altitude of about 28 miles, then fell back to the ocean where they were recovered and reused, according to NASA.

The external tank is the gas tank for the shuttle's three main engines, and powers the shuttle to a height of 70 miles above Earth, NASA says. About 8.5 minutes after launch, the tank is ejected, and mostly disintegrates in the atmosphere.

It's expected that Endeavour will arrive in Los Angeles next fall and be paraded from Los Angeles International Airport through Inglewood to the Science Center, near USC. Until a permanent museum is built, Endeavour will be housed in a temporary building at the museum, and be displayed horizontally.


California Science Center plans parade for Endeavour

Science Center to get space shuttle's pink slip

Q&A: Endeavour astronauts talk about shuttle coming to L.A.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II at the California Science Center

Photo: An illustration of the space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA