WICHITA — An enormous, alien-looking aircraft briefly touched down at Yingling Aviation on Wednesday, opened the front half of the plane like a door to load nearly 19,000 pounds of NASA mission control consoles and took off for Houston.
Since January, the Cosmosphere’s SpaceWorks division worked to reconfigure the mission control consoles to look like they did during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. The consoles are part of a $5 million NASA project to restore a mission control room at Johnson Space Center in Houston for an unveiling in July 2019 -- 50 years after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.
The consoles were trucked to Hutchinson and flown back on the unique aircraft, called a Super Guppy. Jim Thornton, NASA’s restoration project manager, said taking out the 1980 plane was more about training other pilots than actually needing to use the aircraft.
“It was kind of a subtle entrance,” Mimi Meredith, with the Cosmosphere, jokingly told the crew when they landed.
Employees and airport-goers snapped photos in front of the plane that’s shaped like a whale.
According to NASA, the Super Guppy was built using a Boeing Model 377 and C-97 Stratocruisers. Parts of the plane can be dated back to 1948.
NASA’s Super Guppy was used by the European Space Agency to transport space parts. In 1997, NASA made a trade for the Super Guppy. They carried “experimental equipment” to the International Space Station during two flights in exchange for the plane.
Pilot Brett Pugsley said it’s the last Super Guppy, built by now-defunct Aero Spacelines, still in flight. The other three are in a museum, he said.
This one requires “a lot of babying,” pilot Bill Ehrenstrom said.
The left brake line snapped during the roughly two-hour flight. Ehrenstrom said they first noticed when they landed and saw fluid on the ground.
While it was being fixed, Ehrenstrom shrugged and shook his head about whether the broken brake line worried him. He was more worried about the forecasted snow in the area for the flight back. Because of the forecast, the crew of the Super Guppy moved their departure up by a couple hours. Ehrenstrom kept checking the weather while loadmasters, well, loaded.
Jack Roberts and James Goetze have been trained specifically for loading cargo in the Super Guppy. Roberts said they usually use a crane to move planes and other aircraft items into the Super Guppy. But the roughly 1,000 pound consoles were small enough to be done with a forklift. The 10 consoles were wrapped in padded blankets and each had multiple straps with weight limits of 5,000 pounds each.
The consoles weighed a total of 18,600 pounds, Roberts said. The Super Guppy can carry nearly 50,000 pounds.
There was still plenty of room left in the plane that’s 111-foot long and has a cargo area with a “constant” 25-foot diameter. However, the cockpit was cramped for the crew, which included two pilots, two engineers and a couple of maintenance technicians.
Roberts was also going to fly back with the consoles. The consoles rested on wood pallets on top of specially designed metal pallets. The pallets holding the consoles were lowered onto a track in the cargo area of the plane.
They were pushed back along the track and locked into place by hydraulic poles that ran through holes in the pallets.
Then, the front quarter of the plane was pushed back shut. The cables were reattached so the pilots to fly and the Super Guppy headed off back to the Ellington Airport in Houston.
Cosmosphere Vice President of Exhibits and Technology Jack Graber and other members of SpaceWorks were headed to Houston as well in a flight scheduled to depart a few hours behind the Super Guppy.
The Cosmosphere staff plan to help with an unveiling of the mission control consoles during a ceremony at Ellington Airport on Friday.
Graber said “Apollo alumni” were invited to the ceremony.
Ten consoles will be loaded up on a truck in Houston on Friday as well, Graber said. The consoles are expected to arrive back in Hutchinson on Monday and will be reconfigured like the last ones.
In the next batch, nine of the consoles will be used will be displayed with the others in the mission control room. Graber said the tenth will be used for parts.
Graber said the four-person team at SpaceWorks, including himself, have been working about 40 hours a week on the consoles since they arrived. They used an old manual and pictures from NASA to assist them in the reconfiguration. They added new wiring and video that will play on a loop.
NASA used the consoles from the 1960s through the early 1990s and moved around panels to use the consoles differently from one launch to the next.
The consoles being reconfigured were used in the second mission control room, kind of like a backroom, and not on the main floor that people imagine when they think about a mission control room.
However, they will be redisplayed as the main attraction in a room just below the mission control room now in use.
The consoles landing in Houston will be stored until the finishing touches are done in room it will be displayed in. Graber said wallpaper and carpet still need to be installed in the room to make it look like it would have during the launch in 1971.
Graber called working on the consoles one of the highlights of his time at the Cosmosphere. He lists it alongside working on the Gemini shuttles that were in space together at the same time.
He worked on the shuttles in the basement of the Cosmosphere.
“Dale (Capps) and I each in one,” Graber said. “That was pretty cool.”
SpaceWorks’ past restoration projects include the Apollo 13 capsule and Liberty Bell 7.