NASA’s extraordinary Super Guppy aircraft flies again

NASA’s extraordinary Super Guppy aircraft took to the skies again earlier this week, carrying with it a vital component that traveled to space as part of last year’s uncrewed Artemis I moon mission.

A video (top) shared by NASA shows the Super Guppy arriving at Huntsville International Airport in Alabama on Monday, carrying with it the heat shield that protected the Orion spacecraft during the Artemis I flight.

The airport’s X account posted a message describing the “unique visitor” as “always a sight to see!”

The Super Guppy brought the heat shield from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and it was later delivered to the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center about four miles away.

“Technicians at Marshall will use the center’s specialized milling tool to remove the heat shield’s outer layer of ablative material, a protective coating called Avcoat, as part of routine post-flight analysis,” NASA said.

The Super Guppy could be deployed again as part of preparations for the Artemis II mission, which next year will carry four astronauts on a flyby of the moon.

The unusual-looking aircraft was first used to transport sections of NASA’s Saturn V rocket in preparation for the Apollo missions five decades ago.

The original Guppy airplane, known as the Pregnant Guppy, was built by the now-defunct Aero Spacelines in the 1960s by converting a Boeing Stratotanker refueling aircraft.

In the middle of that decade, Aero Spacelines built the larger Super Guppy, incorporating a 25-foot (7.6-meter) diameter cargo bay and a hinged nose that made it easier to load cargo.

The final version of the aircraft, the Super Guppy Turbine, entered service in 1970.

As NASA’s original Super Guppy aged, NASA bought a newer one in 1997 from Airbus, which had built two Super Guppy aircraft after obtaining the manufacturing rights from Aero Spacelines. NASA’s Super Guppy is the only one that continues to fly today.

“The physical limitations of railroad tunnels, narrow roads, low bridges, and power lines make overland shipment of such cargo extremely problematic, if not impossible,” NASA says on its website, adding that the Super Guppy offers a “practical and economical solution to these problems.”

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