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Ever since the former USSR launched Sputnik into earth orbit on October 4, 1957, people have been collecting space relics. Imagine a space relic sold by NASA that weighs 39 tons and measures 154 feet (half a football field in length). Now imagine that same collectible sitting abandoned in a small riverside town with a population of about 8,000.

Three questions come to mind. What is it? How did it get there? Why is it there? Join me on another travel trailer road trip to find out the answers to these questions.

While camping with my wife and daughter in St. Augustine, Florida (the oldest settlement in the United States, having been founded in 1565), we decided to spend a day exploring backwater towns bordering the St. Johns River. When we reached the Port of Green Cove Springs, we saw a massive cylinder sitting on what looked like a custom-built transport trailer. We parked our car next to the pointy-nosed cylinder to take photographs of the fantastic difference between sizes; our Kia Sorento looked like a toy next to whatever was on the transport trailer!

What we came upon turned out to be an abandoned external fuel tank from NASA’s defunct Space Shuttle Program. Having attended college a short distance south of Kennedy Space Center during the beginning of the Space Shuttle era, I knew external fuel tanks were built as disposable items that would burn up after being released from Space Shuttles.

Space Shuttle Discovery

The external fuel tank of the Space Shuttle Discovery was designed to burn up after release from the Shuttle. 

It turns out that the external fuel tank in Green Cove Springs was never used on an actual space flight. Rather, it was used for structural and stress testing between 1977 and 1980 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Afterwards, it was put on public display. In 1997, the fuel tank was transported to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Merritt Island, Florida, for display.

When the Space Shuttle Program shut down in 2011, NASA decided to sell off unnecessary space relics. The external fuel tank was sold in 2013 to the Wings of Dreams Aviation Museum (now permanently closed) in Starke, Florida. Using a barge, a pair of tugboats and cranes, the tan-colored fuel tank was taken on a journey through Port Canaveral, north on the Atlantic Ocean, then south on the St. Johns River to where it sits today in Green Cove Springs.

Apparently, due to having to pay for the removal and replacement of utility lines, streetlights, signs, and trees along the route (less than thirty miles to Starke), as well as an additional expense of hiring police escorts to shut down roadways, the cost of moving the fuel tank from the seaport to the museum was going to be too much of a financial burden on the owner. So, there it sat and there it still sits – an abandoned space relic waiting for someone to add it to his or her collection.

Space shuttle fuel tank

An abandoned external fuel tank from NASA’s defunct Space Shuttle era dwarfs the writer's SUV outside Green Cove Springs, Florida.

As for the property where the fuel tank is located, it has historical significance, also. Being so near to Jacksonville, a major U.S. Navy town, the property was turned into Naval Air Station Lee Field in 1940, soon after to become Naval Air Station Green Cove Springs. The airfield was used for training Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter pilots during World War II. When the air station was no longer needed, the property was decommissioned and sold to a developer, who turned it into a combination industrial park, seaport, airport, and railyard, which it still is today.

Did I just write railyard? Yes, I did, which brings me to the subject of railcars. During the same day trip that brought me to the external fuel tank, I happened upon a pair of antique railcars; one was in Orange Park (15 miles north of Green Cove Springs), while the other was in Palatka (25 miles south of Green Cove Springs). The stories behind these two railcars are unrelated, but both are interesting. If you want to read about them, check out my next column in Antique Trader.

I sure love exploring the small towns and backroads of this great country during my monthly travel trailer road trips!

A side note:  My tow vehicle was recently upgraded from the Kia Sorento mentioned in this article to a Chevrolet Silverado capable of pulling over 10,000 pounds, still nowhere near enough power to budge this space-age roadside attraction.

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