Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s ‘Super Guppy’ delivers EM-1 Orion to Kennedy Space Center

NASA Super Guppy Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility with Orion EM-1 spacecraft photo credit Laurel Ann Whitlock SpaceFlight Insider

The Super Guppy aircraft that carried the EM-1 pressure vessel for Orion touched down at 3: 42 p.m. EST at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility. Photo Credit: Laurel Ann Whitlock / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — One of NASA’s more unique aircraft touched down at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida. Safely cocooned within the aircraft’s cavernous interior was the pressure vessel for the Orion spacecraft selected to carry out Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) – the first integrated flight of Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. 

Now that Orion has safely arrived at Kennedy, it will be transported to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building where it will be integrated with the spacecraft’s remaining components.

NASA Super Guppy opens to reveal its payload - the Exploration Mission 1 Orion pressure vessel. Photo Credit Jason Rhian SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s Super Guppy opens to reveal Orion’s Pressure Vessel. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Orion departed from the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans earlier in the day on Monday, Feb. 1, where the seven components that make up the capsule-based vehicle’s pressure vessel were welded together. The primary contractor for Orion, Lockheed Martin, began assembly of the new crew-rated spacecraft at the MAF, which is also where Boeing is constructing SLS’ core stage.

Once that had been completed, the spacecraft’s pressure vessel was wrapped up and encapsulated in preparation for transport to KSC. It was then loaded onto the Super Guppy.

Built by Aero Spacelines, the aircraft conducted its first flight on August 31, 1965. It and other versions of the design were used to transport over-sized cargo for the space agency’s Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs.

The massive and oddly-shaped aircraft touched down at approximately 3:42 p.m. EST (20:42 GMT) at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility.

NASA Super Guppy opens to reveal its payload - the Exploration Mission 1 Orion pressure vessel. Photo Credit Bill Jelen / We Report Space

The expansive interior of the Super Guppy. Photo Credit: Bill Jelen / We Report Space

The Super Guppy is often used to deliver large components to NASA’s various centers across the nation. It has been used several times in the past to transport Orion components to the agency’s centers.

According to representatives with the space agency, Orion was to be offloaded at around 7 p.m. EST (00:00 GMT). A representative with Orion’s prime contractor noted that there will be little time wasted in the spacecraft’s processing.

“We’ll begin work on Orion at the [Neil A. Armstrong] O&C Building – almost immediately,” Lockheed Martin’s Jules Schneider told SpaceFlight Insider. “It’ll arrive today and we’ll get it out of its transport vehicle… and then we’ll immediately load it into its structural assembly tool.”

If everything continues to go as planned, Orion will lift off atop the new super heavy-lift SLS booster in late 2018 from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B.

Before that can take place, however, the spacecraft has to undergo extensive construction. With its heat shield, the metallic exterior coating, the components of its European-provided service module, and other important elements still needing to be added.

Some of the other systems that Orion needs to carry out the EM-1 mission include, but are not limited to the following: Electrical power storage and distribution, thermal control, cabin pressure control, command and data handling, communications and tracking, guidance, navigation and control, reaction control system propulsion and flight software and computers.

NASA has stated that Orion and SLS are pivotal for the agency’s plans to send astronauts to the surface of Mars in the 2030s. However, before that can take place, NASA has to test out the integrated stack of both the SLS booster and Orion.

With the pressure vessel now at Kennedy Space Center, the task of assembling the spacecraft’s various systems and components can go into full swing.

“The EM-1 mission is slated for around an October 2018 launch, what that means for me is, I have to back up from about six months from that time and deliver an integrated spacecraft to NASA so that they can process it and get it ready to launch on SLS,” Schneider said. “So about two years from right now, is when I have to deliver the spacecraft to NASA for ground processing.”

EM-1 Orion arrives at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo Credit: Michael Seeley / We Report Space

Photo Credit: Michael Seeley / We Report Space

Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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