The Super Guppy aircraft was originally based upon the Boeing 377, an airliner developed from the KC-97 tanker. With an inner diameter of 25 feet, this plane could carry full-size Saturn rocket stages across the US in a matter of hours. The Guppies played an vital role in getting people to the Moon in a decade. This last remaining Super Guppy has been used to carry parts for the International Space Station and Orion.
The idea for the first "Pregnant Guppy" came over drinks. Pilot Jack Conroy and Lee Mansdorf were discussing the problem of moving Saturn rocket stages across the US by barge. Mansdorf had recently come into possession of several Boeing 377 Stratocruisers and was looking for a business. Conroy made some sketches and the first Guppy was born. Built with private funding, it first flew on September 19, 1962.
At first NASA engineers doubted that this funny-looking aircraft could even fly. Without a NASA contract and nearly out of money, Conroy flew the Guppy across the US on a demonstration tour. Ending up in Huntsville, he showed the aircraft to skeptical NASA engineers. MSFC Director Wehrner Von Braun was so excited that he took a ride himself. NASA was sold, and started pushing the FAA to certify the plane.
The first two-stage launch of a Saturn rocket, the SA-5 was behind schedule because of problems with liquid hydrogen engines. Using the Pregnant Guppy, the important first stage was shipped across the US in 18 hours. By barge the journey would have taken 18-25 days. The SA-5 test successfully reached orbit on January 29, 1964. Without the Guppy, the Apollo program would have fallen permanently behind schedule.
The Pregnant Guppy was so successful that it led to bigger plans. Originally the larger version was called the B-377VPG for Very Pregnant Guppy! To make the new plane lift more weight, more powerful turboprop engines were needed. Conroy knew that the US Air Force had engines left over from retired KC-97's. The NASA Administrator's Office interceded with the Air Force, stressing the national interest. The engines were made available and the Super Guppy first flew on August 31, 1965. After an incident at Ellington Field requiring an engine change, NASA placed spare engines across the country to insure that the Guppies met their schedule.
With the clock running on the race to the Moon, NASA needed the Super Guppy almost immediately. In March 1966 the new plane transported a complete Saturn Instrument Unit from IBM in Huntsville to the Douglas factory in Huntington Beach, California. That same month Super Guppy brought a complete SIV-B test stage back to Huntsville. Thanks in a large part to the Guppies, humans reached the Moon in 1969.
The Guppies were owned and operated by Aero Spacelines, a private company started by Conroy and others. To please the FAA, the Guppies were declared public aircraft for legal reasons. Like today's COTS contractors, Aero Spacelines took a great risk to carry NASA payloads. Also like today, there were many doubters. The ingenuity of the Guppies was vital for reaching the Moon on time.
We are all familiar with the circular cross section of an aeroplane fuselage. It is the most natural shape for a pressurised vessel. The blood vessels within our bodies and even the cells themselves take the form of circles and spheres. Objects from stars and planets to raindrops also form spheres. Philosophers from Pascal to Einstein and even Edgar Allen Poe believed that the Universe is spherical. Scientists today say that the Universe is flat, like the Earth. From past experience, we all know which side will win.