The Super Guppy aircraft was acquired by NASA from the European Space Agency under an International Space Station barter agreement. Manufactured by Airbus Industries, ESA supplied the aircraft to offset the cost to NASA of carrying ESA experiment equipment to the station as part of two future Space Shuttle flights. The new Super Guppy is the latest version in a long line of Guppy cargo aircraft used by NASA. Guppy aircraft were used in several past space programs, including Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab, to transport spacecraft components. The first Guppy aircraft was developed in 1962, designed specifically for NASA operations by Aero Spacelines of California.
An innovative approach to management of the new Super Guppy allows the aircraft to be leased from the government for other cargo-carrying operations when it is not being used to ship NASA spacecraft components. The leasing of the aircraft is hoped to offset the cost of operations.
The Super Guppy, designated 377SG-201, has a cargo compartment that is 25 feet tall, 25 feet wide and 111 feet long. It can carry a maximum payload of more than 26 tons. The aircraft has unique hinged nose that can open more than 200 degrees, allowing large pieces of cargo to be loaded and unloaded from the front.
NASA personnel at Ellington Field have outfitted the Super Guppy with a specially designed cradle to be used when carrying International Space Station components.