NASA’s Orion capsule – which is tasked to bring humans to Mars – has gone on a trip. It’s not yet going to space, though. The aircraft is merely moving from New Orleans to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
From the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana to Florida, the Orion will be carried by the Supper Guppy aircraft, a massive aircraft resembling the cute tiny fish from up above but remaining a stark, imposing sight on the ground.
The Super Guppy is assigned to transport Orion for Exploration Mission-1, where the pressure vessel will fly on the first integrated launch of Orion and the new rocket known as the Space Launch System (SLS) in 2018.
Featuring a cargo compartment measuring 25 feet in height, 25 feet in width, and 111 feet in length, the Super Guppy can carry over 26 tons of cargo and has a hinged nose that allows large items to be loaded and unloaded from the front side.
This unique airplane’s history dates back to the Apollo’s time in the 1960s, when it was used to move Saturn V rocket’s parts from California to Florida. It’s a welcome alternative to a Panama Canal passage, which will take weeks or months to be completed.
It has also been used for shipping supersonic jets, modules from the International Space Station, and the Orion capsule's heat shield – the biggest of its kind ever constructed.
The Orion is perhaps Super Guppy’s most important cargo – the spacecraft is planned to carry four astronauts and launch atop the SLS.
But first: a test flight. “[It] will fly without crew [and] will demonstrate the agency’s new capability to launch future deep space missions, which include missions to an asteroid and Mars,” NASA said in an official statement.
Preceding Exploration Mission-1 is Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) in December 2014, a mission that brought Orion 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface and assessed basic functions needed for a manned mission to space.
At the space center in Florida, Orion will be tested for its structural integrity and outfitted with the right systems. If things fall into place, it will take its first flight on top of SLS in 2018.
Fingers crossed, its first crewed mission will then occur in 2013, while NASA is hoping to send humans to the Red Planet by the middle of the 2030s.