How NASA’s amazing Super Guppy is helping the Artemis moon missions

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NASA’s Super Guppy is an extraordinary looking aircraft.

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Giant wide-bodied aircraft are used by the space agency to transport components that are too large to fit in a conventional cargo aircraft.

The Super Guppy was used to move parts of NASA’s giant Saturn V rocket in preparation for lunar missions in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and now aircraft to aid the upcoming Artemis moon missions. Taking it to the sky.


In its latest flight, Super Guppy transports the heat shield skin for Orion, the spacecraft that will carry humans in the Artemis missions to the Moon, which are expected before the end of this decade.

The plane landed at Moffett Federal Airfield near San Jose in California earlier this month, the skin being transferred to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, where it awaits the next phase of production.

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The space agency this week released images (below) of Super Guppy shortly after its arrival at the airfield, one of which shows a spacecraft component being removed from a huge cargo compartment stowed near the front of the plane.

The original Guppy aircraft, the Pregnant Guppy, was actually a KC-97 Stratotanker converted by the defunct Aero Spacelines Company in 1962.

Three years later, the Aero Spaceline followed with the larger and more powerful Super Guppy, which featured a 25-foot (7.6-m) diameter cargo bay, and a hinged nose for more efficient cargo loading for the first time.

The final version of the aircraft, the Super Guppy Turbine, first took to the skies in 1970.

With NASA’s original Super Guppy aging rapidly, the agency purchased a new one in 1997 from Airbus, which had built two Super Guppy aircraft after acquiring manufacturing rights from Aero Spaceline. NASA’s Super Guppy is the only aircraft that is still flying today.

“Unlike other aircraft, the Super Guppy aircraft has a specially designed hinged nose that opens at a 110-degree angle to allow cargo to be loaded and unloaded from its belly,” NASA says on its website, saying that the aircraft’s unique shape “allows it to carry heavy or bulky hardware that would otherwise not fit on conventional aircraft.” Indeed, last year the plane carried the entire Orion spacecraft to Kennedy Space Center, where it now sits atop NASA’s almighty SLS rocket in preparation for launch.

The agency says that at 16.5 feet (about 5 meters) in diameter, Orion’s heat shield and skin are the largest ever developed for a human spaceflight mission. The shield includes a built-in titanium skeleton covered by a carbon fiber skin that protects the spacecraft and its crew from intense heat when the vehicle re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at approximately 25,000 mph.

This special shield will be used for the Artemis IV mission, the third crewed trip to the Moon.

The first major test of Orion will take place during Artemis I, an unmanned mission scheduled for 2022, in which the spacecraft will perform a flyby of the Moon before returning to Earth. The visit will confirm that all of its systems are secure and in proper working order.

Artemis II will see Orion take the same route, though this time with astronauts, while Artemis III will attempt to land the first woman of color on the lunar surface.

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