NASA is on a mission to get humans back on the Moon, with the goal of boots on the surface in 2025. Helping NASA achieve this mission is one of the most distinctive and rarest planes in the sky: a transport aircraft called the Super Guppy. The plane just delivered the heat shield skin for a future Artemis mission.
When you need to carry cargo that can’t fit on any regular freighter, there are some rather freaky-looking planes that can get the job done. NASA’s choice is its Super Guppy Turbine, registration N941NA. It was originally put into service all the way back in 1953 as Boeing KC-97 Stratotanker SN 52-828.
You may know the C-97 best by the civilian aircraft that it was developed into, the majestic Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.
One big problem of the space race was figuring out how to get giant rocket parts to Cape Kennedy. They were far too big for the road and for rail, so NASA used slow barges. In 1961, Aero Spaceline Industries stepped up to the plate with a solution. The firm would take a KC-97 Stratotanker and heavily modified it to carry the second stage of a Saturn rocket.
The Pregnant Guppy and its 5.79 m diameter cargo bay cut transport time for rocket parts from 18 to 25 days down to 18 hours.
But ASI didn’t stop there, and in 1965 it introduced the Super Guppy. This one featured a 7.62 m diameter cargo bay, more powerful engines, a pressurised cockpit and a nose that hinged out to swallow huge loads.
ASI and NASA used the plane for a whole 32 years, using it to carry loads as large as the third stage of the Saturn V.
That Super Guppy wouldn’t be the only one. ASI built two Super Guppy Turbines, which were similar to the Super Guppy, but came equipped with Allison T-56 turboprops. By this time, so much was changed so much that the only KC-97 parts left were the wings, cockpit, tail and main gear. The nosewheel, for example, came from a Boeing 707 and flipped around.
Airbus flew the two SGTs starting in the early 1970s to transport A300 fuselage sections.
They weren’t enough and two more were built in the early 1980s. Remember KC-97 SN 52-828? That plane was built into the last SGT, serial 0004. Boeing joked back then that “every Airbus is delivered on the wings of a Boeing.”
SGT 0004 flew for Airbus until 1997 when NASA was able to acquire it to replace that original Super Guppy.
Since then it’s played an important role not just for NASA but other agencies. It also carries T-38 jet trainers for the Air Force and V-22s for the Navy. N941NA is the only Super Guppy of any kind still operating and technically one of the last KC-97s.
The Super Guppy’s influence lives on today in a handful of other oddly-shaped planes. Boeing flies the 747-400 Large Cargo Freighter Dreamlifter.
Airbus has its A300-600ST Beluga.
Both of these planes fly all kinds of big and heavy goods around the world when standard freighters just won’t work.
As humans head back to the Moon, NASA is using N941NA to carry spacecraft parts like it used the original Super Guppy in the past.
The heat shield skin it delivered will be used on the Orion spacecraft for the Artemis IV mission, the third crewed Artemis mission to the Moon. NASA says that when the shield will experience 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit during the spacecraft’s re-entry, about half as hot as the sun.
And when all of that happens, a weird Super Guppy plane would have been part of two space programs that brought us to the Moon.