NASA's Super Guppy is one of the space agency's unsung heroes.
The oversized cargo aircraft moved parts of NASA's enormous Saturn V rocket in preparation for the moon landings of the 1960's and 70s, and, as recently as this month, it has carried components for the Artemis moon missions, which are slated to launch in 2025, a blog post from NASA reveals.
A brief history of NASA's Super Guppy
The Super Guppy was designed to transport parts that are too large to fit in more conventionally-shaped cargo aircraft. It was originally developed in 1962 by a company called Aero Spacelines, which converted a Boeing KC-97 Stratotanker to make the massive cargo plane, which was originally called the Pregnant Guppy.
Three years later, Aero Spacelines built a larger version, called the Super Guppy, with a 25-foot (7.6-meter) diameter cargo bay and a hinged nose for faster cargo loading. Later, Airbus acquired the rights for the Super Guppy from the now-defunct Aero Spacelines. Today, NASA flies the only model left of the flying giant.
The Super Guppy's most recent flight saw the aircraft transport the in-development heat shield skin for NASA's Orion on Nov. 9. Orion is the spacecraft that will fly a crewed mission to the Moon as part of NASA's Artemis missions. The lunar landings were recently postponed by NASA to 2025 from their original launch date of 2024, partly due to a drawn-out legal dispute with Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin over the awarding of a Moon lander contract to SpaceX.
NASA prepares for its 2025 Moon landings
Now that the legal dispute with Blue Origin is settled, NASA is going full steam ahead with its Artemis plans. The Orion heat shield transportation mission saw the Super Guppy land at Moffett Federal Airfield near San Jose, California, after which the heat shield was transported by road to NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.
NASA says that Orion's heat shield is the largest one ever developed for a crewed space mission. The shield features a titanium skeleton that's covered by a carbon fiber skin that will protect the Artemis astronauts as they re-enter Earth's atmosphere at speeds of up to 25,000 mph (40,233 km/h) on their return from the Moon. Before humans do return to the Moon, NASA will conduct a test mission, called Artemis I, to make sure that all of its Orion components, including the heat shield, work as expected, so that it can give the green light to the long-awaited return of its moon missions.