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Environment & Science

The only person who didn't photograph the Space Shuttle's External Tank last weekend

Mike Sheehan
Mike Sheehan
Mike Sheehan
Mike Sheehan
Mike Sheehan
Mike Sheehan
Mike Sheehan

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Off-Ramp is the only radio show with a staff sketch artist. He's Mike Sheehan and this time he reports on ET-94's trip from the South Bay to the California Science Center where, in a few years, it'll be placed upright next to the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

I love drawing in the middle of chaos. I think it’s my version of dancing. In my mind it’s all rhythm and motion and hyper-awareness. From my last experience sketching the Shuttle Parade, nothing is more fun and chaotic than that. Going through my sketchbooks, I remembered I had also sketched the Shuttle Endeavour as it flew over Disneyland.

When everyone else was taking photos or video, Mike Sheehan sketched Shuttle Endeavour last weekend as it traveled from LAX to the California Science Center.
When everyone else was taking photos or video, Mike Sheehan sketched Shuttle Endeavour last weekend as it traveled from LAX to the California Science Center.
Mike Sheehan

When I heard ET-94, the fuel tank from the shuttle, would be making its way through the streets of Los Angeles, I was in. These events create a weird magical day where everybody in the city decides to be amazing and nice to each other, like a real-time scene from a musical.

This one was going to be in two parts, ET-94 arriving in the harbor then its drive through the streets of Los Angeles to its new home at the California Science Center.

For its arrival I arrived at Fisherman’s Village in Marina del Rey at around 5 a.m. It wasn’t too crowded. I got to sit in one place and draw, which is nice sometimes. I set up near the news crews since they usually know where the best view is going to be. Helicopters hovered overhead creating a constant roar. ET-94 came into view around 6:30 a.m. It was hard to get a sense of scale when it’s on the barge. The crowd was mellow and small.

When I got to the same spot to see it start its trek Friday night, it was a totally different scene. I got there pretty early, 10 p.m. The streets were already blocked and the crowds were streaming toward the Village.

I parked and walked a mile-and-a-half. Again, there was constant helicopter noise. It had the effect of making the event seem epic and important. I walked up to the tank to AC/DC’s “Shook Me All Night Long” blaring from the California Science Center’s Annual Discovery Ball in a nearby tent.

I started drawing the truck and tank. A French woman walked up and asked if I was a professional; I said yes. Then she proceeded to tell me everything she thought was wrong with my sketch. That was balanced by a fun conversation with an LA Times reporter.

12:08 a.m. and it began its journey. As I was walking alongside it, people showed up in period costume with a New Orleans jazz band from the gala. I walked and sketched the tuba player. My Dad likes tuba. Probably why I honed in on him. (Use the audio player to hear the band.)

I had to walk alongside the band and draw in the dark. I tripped over a few traffic cones. But when am I ever going to draw a tuba player in a New Orleans jazz band while a spaceship's five story tall gas tank looms overhead at one o’clock in the morning?

Never, that’s when.

I followed it through the wee hours of the morning. I hit the wall at about 4 a.m. Stopped at a Denny’s, drank an obscene amount of coffee and went back out. Thankfully, the sun was coming up and it righted my brain.

For all the seeming chaos of these events, this time I really noticed the precision the planners put into this. The quick breakdown of the obstacles in the route and the immediate replacement of all those elements the minute ET-94 rolled through. The traffic cops would show up ahead and prep the area, chat with people and be helpful to people who were chasing this thing across the city.

This time it didn’t do any photo-op stops. It was pretty much always in motion. It moved along at a faster clip than I expected. It stopped at one point for them to trim some branches off a tree. Two women next to me seemed very upset thinking they were going to cut down the whole tree. They didn’t.

At the Forum (more audio!) people were taking pictures with astronauts and police. Someone was blasting music from their car from a playlist that seemed to take a lot of different tastes into consideration, everything from Digital Underground to the Star Wars theme, as we all filed back to our cars. Another weirdly perfect moment.

Because of all the planning and precision, we get to play in the chaos of a big event like this and to be in the moment when the whole city decides to have a great time together.