When NASA needs to ship its outsized spacecraft components between production, testing, and launch facilities around the country, there is only one plane big enough, powerful enough, and—most importantly—wide enough to do the job: the Aero Spacelines Super Guppy.

First developed in 1962 as a successor to the Pregnant Guppy cargo aircraft, the Super Guppy was designed and built specifically for the purpose of shuttling NASA equipment around the country. Five Super Guppies have been built in all, and the fleet has helped move components for a number of programs including the Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab missions.

The original Super Guppy (the SG) was little more than a modified C-97J Turbo Stratocruiser (a militarized Boeing 377), lengthened and widened to increase its interior cargo capacity—it measured 141 feet long by 25 feet wide—with more powerful engines, bigger wings and a larger tail fin. Still, it could tote 54,000 pounds of cargo at a cruising speed of 300 mph.

The follow-on Super Guppy Turbine (SGT), however, wasn't based on anything—it was built from scratch. It measures 143 feet long and 37 feet tall, with a 156 foot wingspan. Featuring an internal cargo bay that's 25 feet tall, 25 feet wide, and 111 feet long—that's 39,000 cubic feet of cargo space—the SGT can carry a maximum payload north of 26 tons (52,500 lb) at 290 mph up to 564 miles—or a payload of 16,000 pounds as far as 2,000 miles.


It also incorporates a bunch of modern design features that the original SG lacked, like a pressurized cabin that allows it to cruise at much higher altitudes for more efficient flight and a 110-degree swing-out nose that allows for easier loading.

The original SG and SGT, built by Airbus in the 1960s, were joined in the early 1980s by two more SGTs—manufactured by UTA Industries in France. A fourth SGT, the last one produced and the only one still in service, was constructed as payment by the European Space Agency to NASA for its help transporting ESA components. The current SGT is primarily used to move ISS and Project Orion components around the country, though it is up to the task of carrying just about anything—as it did earlier this week when it delivered an innovative composite rocket fuel tank to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama for testing as part of NASA's Game Changing Development Program.

The remainder of the fleet can be found on display around the world, including the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona, the Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome in the UK, Toulouse Blagnac International Airport in France, and in Finkenwerder, Germany. [NASA 1, 2 - Wiki]

Image credit: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given