Super Guppy swallows NASA aircraft whole (pictures)

The oversize aircraft with a unique "fold away" nose has helped move NASA's aerospace components for decades.

James Martin
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
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1 of 12 NASA/Jim Ross

The Super Guppy

The Super Guppy has never been to space, but it has a long history of helping NASA get there. The odd-body, oversize aircraft has helped transport components of the Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab missions, and more recently played a key role in the construction of the International Space Station.

Built from parts of Boeing's 377 Stratocruiser, including the wings, engines, lower fuselage, and tail, the modded Super Guppy is one weird-looking plane. It's hinged nose opens to easily load outsize cargo, making the craft a key transport of the delicate, massive components bound for space, ferrying parts and aircraft that just cannot be shipped any other way.

Here, two T-38s, NASA's classic training and chase planes, are being retired, and the SGT Super Guppy-Turbine -- the last of its kind still flying -- is swallowing the jets into its mammoth fuselage.

The T-38 trainers, the same type of jet which you may have seen accompanying the Space Shuttle Endeavor as a chase plane on its final victory laps, are seen here being mounted onto a mobile transporter for loading aboard NASA's Super Guppy before lifting off to El Paso, Texas, for disassembly.
2 of 12 NASA/Jim Ross

A new life for T-38s

Here, workers lift the first of the T-38 jets into place at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. These jets haven't flown in years and are no longer airworthy, NASA says, so the Guppy is tasked with scooping them up and moving them to their new home.

Made to easily load complex cargo, this is a job the Super Guppy was made for. The jets will be transported to El Paso, Texas, where they will be broken down and cannibalized for parts to keep other T-38s at NASA's Johnson Space Center operational.
3 of 12 NASA/Jim Ross

Loading onto the transport pallet

Here, the second of the retired T-38s is loaded onto the special transport pallet at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center before being transported to Johnson Space Center.
4 of 12 NASA/Jim Ross

Last of the Super Guppies

This Super Guppy SGT, the fourth and last one built, was manufactured in 1979 and 1980 for Airbus Industries. NASA Johnson Space Center purchased the jumbo cargo plane from the European Space Agency in late 1997 to move oversize and odd-size components of the International Space Station from their manufacturers around the world to launch sites in preparation for sending them into orbit and integration into the ISS. It is the last of the Guppy aircraft still flying.
5 of 12 JIM ROSS

Guppy's massive volume

The Super Guppy has a cargo compartment that has a usable volume of 39,000 cubic feet -- 25 feet tall, 25 feet wide, and 111 feet long -- capable of carrying payloads of more than 26 tons.

The aircraft has a unique hinged nose, built from the nose gear taken from the Boeing 707, and can open more than 110 degrees, allowing large pieces of cargo to be loaded and unloaded from the front. The Super Guppies have transported a number of NASA's bulky payloads ranging from Saturn rockets to International Space Station modules.

When President Kennedy declared the goal of reaching the moon before 1970, the Pregnant Guppy 377PG and Super Guppy 377SGT-F helped make it possible. Guppies flew more than 2 million miles in support of NASA's Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs, airlifting gigantic, delicate aerospace components and equipment.

Prior to Guppies coming into service, the only other way to get the Apollo rocket stages from the manufacturing site in California to the launch location in Florida was on a slow boat through the Panama Canal.

The invention of the unique Guppy aircraft cut not just days, but weeks and months out of the schedules. NASA says that without these aircraft, we never would have made it to the moon by 1969.
6 of 12 JIM ROSS

Hinged nose cone door

With the two T-38 jets loaded inside, the massive hinged nose cone door -- which opens 110 degrees for cargo loading, is closed -- and the Super Guppy is ready for takeoff.
7 of 12 NASA/Jim Ross

Simplified, efficient loading

With the Super Guppy waiting in the background, the second T-38 is secured to the transport pallet.

Loading cargo is simplified on the Guppy, allowing awkwardly shaped cargo to easily move along a system of roller-mounted rails and through the fuselage break which allows the nose to be opened and closed without disrupting the flight or engine control rigging.
8 of 12 NASA/Jim Ross

Moving America's space program

The Super Guppy-Turbine version currently operated by NASA is the last generation of Guppy that Aero Spacelines built. The biggest difference between it and its predecessor was an upgrade to more reliable and readily available Allison T-56 turboprops.

Airbus Industries commissioned and operated four SGT Super Guppy-Turbine aircraft to ferry large A300 fuselage sections throughout Europe during the last three decades of the 20th century.

NASA's Super Guppy-Turbine primarily moves cargo for the United States' space program and International Space Station components. The Super Guppy is also scheduled to transport the Orion Heat Shield from Textron Defense Systems near Boston to NASA's Kennedy Space Center later this month.
9 of 12 NASA Photo / Tony Landis

Super Guppy in flight

After making repairs to the landing gear at NASA Dryden, NASA's Super Guppy-Turbine cargo plane takes off from Edwards AFB to return to the Johnson Space Center on May 5, 2005.
10 of 12 NASA

Pregnant Guppy

The Aero Spacelines B-377PG Pregnant Guppy, seen here, was flown to Dryden for tests and evaluation by pilots Joe Vensel and Stan Butchart in October 1962.

Built with parts from a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser including the wings, engines, lower fuselage, and tail, the modified aircraft transported cargo for NASA's Apollo program, including portions of the Saturn 5 rockets from the manufacturer to the Cape Canaveral launch site.

Later versions of the aircraft, including the Super Guppy and the last remaining Super Guppy-Turbine, are still used today.
11 of 12 NASA

Delivering the X-38

Members of the flight and ground crews prepare to unload equipment from NASA's B377SGT Super Guppy-Turbine cargo aircraft on the ramp at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on June 11, 2000.
12 of 12 NASA/Tom Tschida

Delivering the X-38 to Dryden

NASA's Super Guppy-Turbine cargo aircraft touches down at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on June 11, 2000 to deliver the latest version of the X-38 Advanced Technology Demonstrator flight test vehicle to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center.

The X-38 program was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of what was a proposed Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) based at the International Space Station. Due to budget restrictions and reconfigurations surrounding the International Space Station, on April 29, 2002, NASA announced that it was canceling both the CRV and X-38 programs.

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