NASA’s Orion Spacecraft Visits Florida on way to Mars

Super Guppy transports ginormous part from New Orleans to Cape Canaveral.

NASA Orion Super Guppy
NASA

We just took a step closer to putting men on Mars, and the Super Guppy helped us do it. NASA is currently building the Orion spacecraft it will use to shuttle four astronauts to The Red Planet around two decades hence. The Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, Louisiana, recently completed welding together the seven pieces of Orion’s pressure vessel—that’s where the humans will live—and NASA had to get the capsule to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for construction and testing.

Enter the Super Guppy, the last of five whopping transport planes built by Aero Spacelines and Airbus between 1964 and 1983, used to haul gear way too large for an oversized baggage conveyor. The other four Super Guppies are out of commission, on display around the world. In flight it looks like one of the hive-mind creatures from Starship Troopers without the slimy bits, but it gets the job done. At work for NASA as far back as the Gemini program, this huge transport has a nose that can swing open more than 200 degrees, freeing up access to a cargo hold that’s 25 feet tall, 25 feet wide and 111 feet long. Max load capacity is 26.25 tons.

Orion, slightly more svelte, has a larger task. Over the next two years at Cape Canaveral, Lockheed-Martin is fitting the pressure capsule with avionics and flight hardware, and it will be bolted to its heat shield and service module, then get a metallic coating. In 2018, NASA is scheduled to place Orion atop the Space Launch System’s (SLS) heavy-lift booster for a second test flight called Exploration Mission-1, which will be an unmanned excursion to verify all is as it should be. If that goes well, a manned test flight is planned for 2023. Assuming no ill tidings come from those two forays, we throw up the “Mars or Bust!” signs sometime in the 2030s. And sometime after that, we can start making movies about how we attack other peaceful planets, instead of always being on the defensive.