Former DA's Photos Capture Space Shuttle Tank's Journey to California

shuttle external tank
As captured in one of Gil Garcetti's photos from the exhibition, a truck towed the external tank through the streets of Los Angeles to the California Science Center. (Image credit: Gil Garcetti/California Science Center)

One and a half million people turned out four years ago to watch as space shuttle Endeavour slowly navigated the streets of Los Angeles to be delivered to the California Science Center for display.

Gil Garcetti was not among them.

"I've made few mistakes in my life that I really regret, but one of them was having the opportunity to be present and photograph when the Endeavour went through the streets of Los Angeles," said Garcetti, the former district attorney-turned-photographer, in an interview with "I was 'too busy' working on another project and I regretted it the day after." [Photos: Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center]

Fortunately for Garcetti, — and now, for the visitors to the California Science Center, who can see his photographs in the new exhibit, "Mission 26: ET Comes Home" — he had a second opportunity.

"When I was offered the chance to photograph the journey of ET-94, there was no hesitation on my part. I needed to do this. I wanted to do this," said Garcetti.

From April 12 through May 21 of this year, Garcetti went along on the sea and street journey of ET-94, NASA's last remaining built-for-flight space shuttle external tank, from its New Orleans' assembly facility to the California Science Center. The tank, along with two solid rocket boosters, will be stacked with Endeavour to form the world's only exhibit of a fully authentic space shuttle launch vehicle as part of the new Oschin Air & Space Center, scheduled to open in 2019.

"This is going to be part of Los Angeles. It is an exciting part of Los Angeles," said Garcetti, who is also the father of the city's mayor, Eric Garcetti. "I've [already] seen how Endeavour has transformed people's thinking about space travel, about engineering, about flying, about maybe even a career in something related to this."

Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti poses in his photo exhibition at the California Science Center capturing the journey of NASA’s last built-for-flight space shuttle external tank. (Image credit: California Science Center)

The exhibition, "Mission 26: ET Comes Home," features 30 of Garcetti's photographs capturing ET-94's voyage from Louisiana, through the Panama Canal, to Marina del Rey and ultimately, its delivery to the California Science Center. The gallery opened on Dec. 15 and runs indefinitely.

Although the 2012 move of the winged orbiter might have been more iconic, Garcetti was drawn to the external tank given its appearance and the reactions to it.

"The first thing was the size and the color when I saw it in New Orleans," explained Garcetti, "but then, I also noticed almost immediately, there was almost a reverence by the workers who were in charge of moving it. A reverence that they were moving something truly unique, something very special to the history of our country — that was the first thing I noticed."

Garcetti photographed the large orange fuel tank from the ground, on the barge alongside it for its ocean journey and from above. 

"When I was up in the air [photographing from a plane], I just saw this and obviously it wasn't, but I felt that it was emitting some special vibes that were going to bring smiles and hope and energy to the people who could see it," he recalled.

Garcetti sensed a similar feeling as he watched the tank cross the Panama Canal.

"When the tank started going through the canal, there was another awesome feeling," he said. "Part of it was because it had been threatening to rain, but as soon as it got near the locks — boom! — I mean, the rain poured down, and I thought, 'Okay, this is special, too, for what we are doing here."

Garcetti witnessed as those in the observatory overlooking the canal "oohed and aahed" at spotting the tank passing from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean. [Photos: Space Shuttle Fuel Tank ET-94 Comes Ashore

"It was magical," he told "It was wonderful watching it journey through it."

Garcetti and the tank parted ways as the latter continued up the coast of California, but they were reunited several days later, as ET-94 arrived at the marina and was brought ashore.

"The very best part was when we brought it through Los Angeles," he stated, "when you saw the incredible feelings from little kids and very mature adults."

"One photo I took was of this little girl, she was probably three and a half, maybe four, years of age. She and her family had made a space helmet for her and she was with her father and much younger brother," Garcetti described. "And just the expression on her face and her hands were just in awe. Her father, his mouth was slack open looking at it."

"They were emblematic of what people were feeling," he said.

Garcetti followed the tank knowing that he would provide the photos to the California Science Center, but it was not until after they saw his results, did "Mission 26: ET Comes Home" come together.

"Once we saw what we had, they very quickly came to the decision that these photographs tell a great story," he said.

"Mission 26: ET Comes Home," featuring the photos of Gil Garcetti, is now on exhibition in the "Endeavour Together" gallery at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

Watch a brief video interview with Gil Garcetti in his “Mission 26: ET Comes Home” photo exhibit at the California Science Center at collectSPACE.

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Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.