As a piece of the Orion spacecraft made its way to Florida this week, the bashful Super Guppy got a slice of attention, too. That’s because the plane, one of the most unique aircraft in the world, has a lumbering nature, which can make Guppy look a little, well, out of place.
The Super Guppy doesn’t look like it should be able to fly, but it does — and it can heave more than 26 tons. As for its insides, the Guppy’s transport compartment is 25 feet tall and wide, and it stretches over 100 feet long. Its nose even opens on a hinge to ease loading.
It’s not the most graceful machine, but the Super Guppy holds a special place in NASA’s programs. Just like its plump predecessors, the plane’s guts are so big, they can transport the space agency’s massive, oddly shaped cargo. The Guppy family has carried spacecraft body parts from programs like Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab, to name a few.
The Super Guppy can be traced back all the way to the Pregnant Guppy. (If that name conjures up an uncomfortable image of a monster fish about to birth more nightmare fish, you’re not alone.) The year was 1962, and NASA was in its infancy. While sorting out how to ship parts from manufacturers all over the country, the newly formed Aero Spacelines had a solution.
The Pregnant Guppy was cobbled together using bits from other planes, including the luxurious Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, a plane that in its heyday featured an extra-wide cabin, beverage lounge, and even a circular staircase linking the two.
That led to the very first Super Guppy, which was also of Frankenstein ilk. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus bought the second to assist with its production, and the European Space Agency got the third. More Guppies evolved, too, including various Mini Guppies and related turbines.
But after the first Super Guppy retired in the early ‘90s, NASA hailed the newer, better Super Guppy Turbine — the fourth in its line — to ferry big parts of the International Space Station. Incredibly, the current Super Guppy uses organs from the very first craft. That’s because when it was being built, there were no more retired sources to dismantle for parts. Though it’s outgrown its initial purpose, the Super Guppy Turbine continues to bumble around with its cosmic cargo.
If you’re curious what it’s like to fly inside the gentle giant, you can read a first-person account here.
Check out the Super Guppy Image Gallery!